Ever since chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the setting up of a UK government infrastructure bank last autumn, investors have wondered what its role will be. Next week, in the Budget, they will get the answer.
The Treasury has only said it will focus on supporting new technologies that are too risky for private finance and would contribute to meeting the government’s target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. As examples, it gave carbon capture technology and the rollout of a nationwide network of electrical vehicle charging points.
The selection process has just begun for a part-time chair, working two to three days a week, and it is scheduled to open on an interim basis on April 1.
The bank’s creation has prompted a debate about how infrastructure should be funded in the UK, at a time when the government’s finances are stretched and customers are likely to resist tax or bill increases, the means by which many sectors — such as ports, airports, energy, telecoms, water, and electricity — are funded.
Many of these assets in England are owned by sovereign wealth, pension and private equity funds, and regulated by arm’s length bodies, under one of the most privatised infrastructure systems in the world.
Dieter Helm, a utilities specialist at Oxford university, said the bank was “a good idea but it needs scale — a balance sheet and capital funding from the state, in which case you’ve essentially created a new arm of the Treasury”.
“The question is whether this is going to be the primary vehicle through which the government implements infrastructure,” he said.
John Armitt, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, a government advisory body, suggested it needed an initial £20bn over five years to make an impact and reach projects the market might be unwilling to support.
The institution, which Sunak has said will be based in the north of England as part of the government’s levelling up agenda, will partly replace the low-cost finance provided by the European Investment Bank, which is no longer available since Brexit. But it is unclear if it will be able to match the €118bn the EIB has lent to the UK since 1973.
Sunak has promised that the government, which spends much less than most European states on infrastructure, will spend £600bn over the next five years. But ministers hope that more than half their national infrastructure plan will be paid for by the private sector. However, private finance is generally more expensive than government borrowing and requires taxpayers to underwrite the construction and financial risks.
“The government wants the public to believe that the country can have this wall of private sector investment without higher bills and taxes now but investors will only come if the government will guarantee they will receive a return and it acts as a backstop,” Helm said.
The lockdowns have taken a heavy toll, for example forcing the renationalisation of rail services. At the same time the Eurostar train service, airports and airlines have called for taxpayer bailouts, while the government is also paying for some households’ broadband.
Although the prime minister has in the past year given the go-ahead to some rail and road schemes, including a tunnel under Stonehenge, other projects — including £1bn of rail improvements — have been axed.
Meanwhile, local authorities — which are responsible for urban roads and other key infrastructure — have been forced to shift their limited financial resources to care for the elderly and vulnerable during the pandemic and so want more central government help.
Despite this growing demand, some investors have questioned the need for the new bank, even though they are popular elsewhere — such as Canada, which established one in 2017.
“Given there is at least $200bn of international capital looking for projects in which they can invest, the government has to be careful it doesn’t just crowd out existing finance,” said Lawrence Slade, chief executive of the Global infrastructure Investor Association, which represents private sector investors.
He argued the new bank, which will take over the government’s guarantee scheme, should only take on projects that are “too risky” for institutional investors, pointing out that the Canada Infrastructure Bank was mandated to lose up to C$15bn (£8.45bn) over 10 years. “It’s not yet clear what question the new infrastructure bank is trying to answer,” he said.
Ted Frith, chief operating officer of GLIL Infrastructure, a £2.3bn fund backed by UK pension funds, said the EIB loaned money at competitive rates to projects that also borrowed from capital markets. “This is a global market and there are plenty of alternative sources of finance to replace the EIB,” he said. However, he added that the infrastructure bank could play a role in addressing the shortage of available projects.
While investors will put equity into existing or smaller infrastructure projects — such as an airport extension or a wind farm — they are wary of new projects, according to Richard Abadie, head of infrastructure at consultancy PwC, because the latter carry long term construction risks and do not provide an income stream for several years.
“The NIB can play a role de-risking projects but the main challenge is how we can afford and manage the cost of energy transition, not whether finance is available to bridge the cost,” he said.
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