Boris Johnson’s government has a love of catchy slogans. It is less good at delivering what those slogans promise. One of the catchphrases is “levelling up” — a pledge to tackle Britain’s regional economic disparities and to help underperforming areas, in many cases those that helped to propel the prime minister into power by forsaking their traditional allegiance to the Labour party. Investment in infrastructure is key, but as a new report by a cross-party group of MPs makes clear the government risks squandering the billions of pounds it has earmarked for new projects unless it adopts a radically different approach.
Developing infrastructure projects must not become an end in itself, the report warns. What is needed is a co-ordinated programme that delivers long-term benefits at a regional and a national level. Local support for projects is vital if they are to be successful, the report goes on. All too often, local consultation begins only after a decision has been taken. The report also warns that “white elephants” tend to be created when projects are not based on addressing challenges faced by local or national communities but instead are sold as being revolutionary or transformational.
The recent decision to commit $500m of taxpayers’ money to buying a stake in the bankrupt satellite operator OneWeb is a case in point. The investment has been hailed as Britain’s chance to improve its position in the space race. If successful, it will deliver broadband connectivity to rural areas around the country and allow the UK to develop an innovative positioning system after being pushed out of Europe’s Galileo programme. It is just the kind of eye-catching, high-tech project that Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, likes to trumpet.
In reality, it is a shot in the dark. There is nothing wrong with trying radical ideas; governments must be prepared to take risks. But in this case ministers are taking a gamble with the public purse at a time when finances are already highly stretched due to the pandemic. As such, entrepreneurial opportunism without due process smacks of arrogance. Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings both harbour a general dislike of being hamstrung by rules, as shown in the latest push for a light-touch regime on state aid after Brexit. In the case of OneWeb, taxpayers’ money is at stake — yet the investment was made with little explanation of the rationale or the strategic benefits. Ministers decided to go ahead despite a warning from a civil servant that it could all be lost. They have taken a gamble with no regard for accountability or transparency.
There are big risks, not least from some deep-pocketed rivals. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have their own plans to deliver internet services from low-Earth orbit. There are technical hurdles that need to be overcome, too, including the fact that the technology that would use OneWeb’s satellites to create positioning services remains unproven. There are opportunities, however. Low Earth orbit constellations are harder to jam than traditional navigation systems such as either America’s GPS or Galileo. Experts believe there is demand for a service that will provide a back-up to both of these systems.
The investment may turn out to be a masterstroke, but the taxpayer deserves to know why it was made. The government should publish the evidence that was used to inform its decision. Being bold and ambitious is no substitute for a well-thought out, coherent strategy to help the poorest parts of Britain while also establishing the infrastructure that could support modern communications and satellite services.
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