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Spending round ‘missed opportunity’ to boost infrastructure, housing and sustainability

Shutterstock sajid javid chancellor
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Industry watchers and construction chiefs have slammed the government for the lack of measures to increase housebuilding in this week’s spending round

Chancellor Sajid Javid outlined departmental investment for 2020/21 in a spending review statement yesterday, one of the first major insights into the fiscal policies of Boris Johnson’s government.

Javid promised that, for the first time in almost two decades, no individual department would have its day-to-day budget cut. He outlined a £13.8 billion increase in operational spending on public services.

He also pledged to deliver an ’infrastructure revolution’, but gave little specific detail other than announcing £200 million to transform bus service and reiterate Johnson’s earlier commitment to funding a high-speed rail link between Leeds and Manchester. 

The chancellor added that he would be giving £30 million towards improving the UK’s biodiversity, another £30 million to tackle air pollution in cities, plus a further £30 million of extra funding provided to the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy to ensure the net zero greenhouse gas emissions target of 2050 is met.

But Melanie Leech, chief executive of the British Property Foundation, said the chancellor’s announcement ‘offered little to support new housing delivery or overstretched planning departments’.

She added: ‘Despite the ambitions of many local authorities, they simply do not have the resources to focus on the strategic issues that will shape and secure their communities’ long-term future.

‘Additional funding must be allocated to planning departments, which have seen the most severe cuts of any local authority service, with per-person spend on planning falling by 55 per cent in 2010/11 and 2017/18.’

Leech also regretted the amount of funding pledged to tackle environmental concerns.

‘The £90 million allocated today to issues of air quality, biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions does not reflect the scale of the challenge we face,’ she said.

‘Reducing our domestic emissions to net zero by 2050, as the Committee on Climate Change has noted, is only achievable if credible policies are introduced, existing ambitions are delivered in full, and challenges that have so far been out of scope are confronted.’

The funding announced is nowhere near the levels needed

John Alker, director of policy and places at the UK Green Building Council, said: ’While we welcome the chancellor’s attention to achieving net zero and protecting biodiversity, the funding announced is nowhere near the levels needed to address these growing environment crises. At a time when the public and businesses are waking up to the realities of long-term environmental damage, the government seems to be out of touch by putting forward token gestures.

’If the UK is to truly lead the world ahead of hosting COP26 [climate change conference], a step change in ambition is sorely needed.’

Meanwhile, RIBA chief executive Alan Vallance agreed that extra cash was urgently needed in council planning departments, but said what the chancellor had pledged was not enough. He said: ’While an increase in spending is welcome, there’s a long way to go to reverse the damage a decade of cuts has had on the built environment.

’The RIBA has consistently raised concerns about the loss of skills in local government, as well as the continued exclusion of SMEs from public sector work. Under-resourced local authority planning departments have slowed the development of new housing and prompted a crisis in building quality.’

And Construction Products Association senior economist Rebecca Larkin criticised the spending statement for being ’light on detail and new commitments’.

There was very little that hadn’t already been announced

She said: ’In terms of capital funding, which represents the part of departmental budgets that are spent on new building work, there was very little that hadn’t already been announced.

’The chancellor’s bolder statements of an “infrastructure revolution” and a “decade of renewal” lost their impact, given the lack of accompanying detail. As most of the industry will confirm, there’s already minimal confidence in the government’s ability to deliver long-term strategic infrastructure projects and the new chancellor did nothing to change this.’

Jasmine Whitbread, chief executive of business body London First, described the spending round as ‘a missed opportunity’.

’Instead of ploughing even more money into [Brexit] no-deal planning – an outcome that must be avoided at all costs – the government should have helped shore up business confidence and galvanise growth through a long-term commitment to investing in critical infrastructure,’ she said.

‘When it publishes its infrastructure strategy later this year, the government must urgently implement the recommendations of the independent National Infrastructure Commission and commit to investing a minimum 1.2 per cent of GDP in vital projects across the country to deliver Northern Powerhouse Rail and Crossrail 2 alongside vital Tube upgrades.’

Comment

John Armitt, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission
The chancellor is right to recognise the UK must up its game on infrastructure, but any revolutionary plans for digital connectivity, improvements to failing urban transport networks and expanding clean energy must be translated into effective actions.

The government must therefore ensure its forthcoming National Infrastructure Strategy is truly long-term in outlook, backed by clear goals and stable and ambitious funding, and genuinely committed to a change in approach. Such a transformative shift is essential if our country is to thrive and cope with the challenges of a growing population and the impacts of climate change.

Fortunately, the chancellor has in our National Infrastructure Assessment a costed, strategic and deliverable blueprint for how that can be achieved. We hope he is true to his word and accepts our expert advice.

Asif Din, sustainability director at the London office of Perkins and Will
’Considering the need to reduce pollution exposure, it is disappointing to see that just £30 million is being committed to improving air quality in our town centres across the UK.

£30 million is like using a water pistol to tackle a house fire

While the chancellor is offering an extra £241million for high street regeneration, failing to drastically mitigate against the increasingly toxic air that we breathe in our urban areas shows that the government are unresponsive to the public health impacts, affecting the vulnerable in society particularly children and the elderly. Earlier this week, city leaders across England requested £1.5 billion to create Clean Air Zones; by comparison, £30 million is like using a water pistol to tackle a house fire.

Dave Sheridan, executive chairman of ilke Homes
Delivering homes to the places that need them is priority number one, and this cannot be done without government investment. The Chancellor’s pledge to increase funding for Homes England is a welcome one, but to meet the government’s targets of building 300,000 homes a year, collaboration between the public and private sector is crucial.

Further investment into the modern methods of construction will be vital to delivering high-quality homes at speed. The previous government demonstrated their support for offsite manufacturing and the opportunities it poses in diversifying the supply chain and creating new jobs, easing the strain that the skills shortages has engendered. Gaining the support of this government will be fundamental to ending the housing crisis and, while increasing funding for Homes England is a good start, there is much more to be done.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • The housing crisis is shocking. It's not just about the amount of homes it's the type of homes. We are not building anywhere near the amount of truly affordable and sustainable homes we need because the developers can't be expected to put social need over profit, that's where you need government intervention.

    This spending round is about the impending general election and vote winning, not what's best for society.

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