Repetition is back in fashion. Build, build, build is the new catchphrase of our Prime Minister, against Sir Keir Starmer’s jobs, jobs, jobs. But in reality, Boris Johnson’s speech this morning had a more nuanced focus: regional connectivity investment, getting ‘shovel ready’ projects on track and completed quickly, and removing the red-tape hindering housing and infrastructure delivery.
New deal or new disappointment?
The announcement of the so-called Project Speed: ‘build better, build greener, build faster’, is a far cry from the ‘party of austerity’, as Boris and Sir Keir argue over who can shovel money out of the Treasury door more quickly to kickstart the post-Covid economy.
Clearly aware of recent poor polling figures and keen to move the conversation away from failures on test and trace and school reopening, the Prime Minister has returned to the mantras set out in his popular election manifesto: to level up the regions; to invest in infrastructure; and to build greener homes, more of them, and faster.
The £5 billion investment plan he set out as part of the wider economic boost includes £100m for road network projects, £900 million for ‘shovel ready’ local projects, and up to £1 million each for areas in the Towns Fund. Laura Kuenssberg pointed out that not much was revealed today that wasn’t already laid out in some form in the last manifesto. Boris was keen, though, to make it clear that the focus now was to speed up the delivery of those promises.
‘Green’ was also a recurring theme, with investment proposed in woodlands, parks, tree planting, and the general zero-carbon agenda sitting within other promises on housing and transport. Few distinct solutions were proposed here, though – rather more rhetoric around the need for British innovation.
The party of big government?
The Prime Minister tried to see off criticism of ‘big government’ by owning the sentiment – saying now was the moment for investment, for big government spending, for outstretched arms around the people of the UK.
Bluster or not, building now and building fast is clearly first on the agenda. Boris claimed to be bringing forward the “most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the Second World War” as he pointed to this as the single biggest reason for the “failure” to build enough homes and bring major infrastructure projects in on time and on budget.
This was an acknowledgement that more money doesn’t always mean more homes or roads, and he is not alone in believing planning barriers have been one of, if not the, central cause of expense and delay across the housing and infrastructure sectors. If true reform is achieved when the Planning White Paper is brought forward in July, then this could actually deliver the impact the Prime Minister is promising.
Boris, back to Mayoral form, stressed that he was not looking to attack the Capital, the City, capitalists in general, or wealth creators. This balance of stripping back red tape to allow for greater free market innovation and smooth planning approvals, while also backing this with government loans and investment, could be the ticket to economic recovery. Yet, as usual, a speech is just a speech, and like Pericles, the leader and rhetorician of Ancient Athens he likes to reference, a plague might also be the vehicle of his downfall. Rishi Sunak – the farmer of the magic money tree – is waiting in the wings.