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Infrastructure held back by planning not cash

Planning issues are now a bigger a threat to major infrastructure schemes than government reluctance to invest, former transport minister Steven Norris said this week.

Norris, now BNP Paribas Real Estate UK chairman, said chancellor George Osborne had led a “genuine revolution” in the way the Treasury - notoriously intransigent with the criteria for spending public money - now viewed investment in infrastructure.

But he said the Treasury’s desire to see nationally significant infrastructure delivered was not shared more widely.

“We’ve seen a genuine revolution over spending on infrastructure - ironically led by Treasury,” Norris told NCE.

“ In fact, Osborne has almost been too enthusiastic. We really have seen a resurgence in infrastructure.

“But there is a huge planning hurdle for linear projects,” he cautioned. “It is an incredibly sclerotic system. You don’t use the Planning Inspectorate, you have the hybrid bill - and that is incredibly slow.

“[Transport secretary Patrick] McLoughlin recently said that he thought the hybrid bill for High Speed 2 (HS2) probably won’t go through before the next election. I’m surprised he ever thought it would,” said Norris.

Norris said the Treasury’s view on infrastructure reflected a “quasi-Keynesian” view that projects such as HS2 get people into jobs now - a vital move in a struggling economy.

The significance of the long-term benefits were also being acknowledged, he said.

Norris cited the Jubilee Line Extension which, since its opening, has been credited with boosting the connection and value of the Canary Wharf financial district. Norris said he had to repeatedly force through the case for the extension in the face of Treasury resistance, despite it having a reasonable business case.

“I forced that project through,” he said. “You have no idea the pressure you had to go through to get infrastructure projects through Treasury.

“The Treasury’s response to infrastructure has been in the past, all: ‘Yes, yes, yes. But it’s very expensive,” he said.

Norris was speaking at an Arup-organised transport for growth event at the Mipim property fair in Cannes.

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