Osborne must order the hard hats and get  serious about improving our infrastructure

My Week

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The Independent Online

There is much that George Osborne can do next week to set this Government on the right course. Boosting productivity will be a theme of his summer Budget, as will improving the UK’s lacklustre export performance and taking an axe to the welfare bill.

For my money, it is infrastructure that should demand much of his attention. Five years ago, we were presented with a National Infrastructure Plan – a vision for how the Government wanted to transform not just the clogged road network, but rail, energy, water and waste too. It announced that around £200bn would be invested in infrastructure over five years – a “step change from the past”.

Not all of it is taxpayer cash, of course – there isn’t much of that to go around. About a fifth comes from the public purse, with the rest coaxed out of the private sector – much of it from overseas. The last update on this plan suggested some progress has been made. In the first four years of the Coalition, £47bn a year was pouring into big building projects, suggesting the target would be easily met. Then consider that £41bn a year – at 2014 prices – was spent by the previous administration and note that it wasn’t such a stretching target after all.

There have been great successes. Crossrail, the east-west rail link across London that will open in 2018, has been built without a hitch and boosted pride in British civil engineering. But it is worth remembering that as with many of these long-term projects, it was given the green light by Labour – namely the former transport minister Lord Adonis alongside Gordon Brown.

There have also been setbacks, such as the recent capitulation by Network Rail, where projects such as the upgrade of the Trans-Pennine rail route – originally due to be completed in 2017, then put back to 2019 – were put on hold indefinitely.

Pension money that was promised to pour into new infrastructure schemes has trickled. The planning regime is still too unwieldy and dampens the spirits of the construction industry.

In that 2010 report, the Government cited World Economic Forum research that ranked the UK at 33rd for the quality of its infrastructure. In its latest survey, Britain came in at 27th. Not yet a step change.

In fact, infrastructure output declined in the early years of the Coalition because too many projects were canned at precisely the time when the economy needed a boost. Fast-forward to today and it is no surprise that the most common complaint fired at the Culture Secretary John Whittingdale does not concern the state of the BBC, but the state of the rural broadband network.

The debacle over expansion at Heathrow shows the UK at its worst – dithering over an essential upgrade while the rest of the world seeks competitive advantage. Mr Osborne, the most pro-Heathrow member of the Cabinet, knows as he stands at the despatch box on Wednesday that it really is time to get the hard hats on.

CBI thinks outside the box instead of being boxed in

 A few months ago, you would have got short odds on the next president of the CBI being called Paul and the employers’ group picking its first woman to be director-general. Both prophecies came to pass – but not in the way anyone expected.

In Paul Drechsler, not the former Diageo boss Paul Walsh, the CBI has gone for a man with a background in chairing mid-sized, privately held companies such as Bibby Line and Wates. The CBI presidency has long been passed around between FTSE 100 chairmen, so the appointment will help dispel the notion that this is a club that speaks only for big business.

In choosing Carolyn Fairbairn, not the in-house favourite of Katja Hall, as director-general, the CBI has branched out at an opportune time. Ms Fairbairn has a formidable CV featuring stints at McKinsey, the Financial Services Authority, the World Bank and the Number 10 Policy Unit.

About the only interesting thing Sajid Javid has said since becoming Business Secretary in May is to tell off the CBI for suggesting that the UK should remain in the European Union no matter what. I think business is very keen to stay in – regardless of what happens to Greece – but no one can decide that until David Cameron has tried to deliver some reforms.

In the meantime, a fresh duo at the top gives the CBI the ideal opportunity to reset its message. And, as a disciple of the cigar-chomping Lord Grade at both the BBC and ITV, Ms Fairbairn must have had plenty of practice at clearing the air.

Sir Martin Sorrell takes the bouncers in his stride

The expression work hard, play hard was never truer than on Sunday when Sir Martin Sorrell flew straight back from a late night at the Cannes Lions advertising festival to open the batting with Brian Lara for Sir Victor Blank’s team at the former Lloyds’ chairman’s annual cricket match.  The WPP advertising tycoon does not need to be asked twice to pad up. Richard Cousins of the caterer Compass also turned out, while the outgoing GlaxoSmithKline chairman Sir Chris Gent was umpiring.

The event, which Sir Victor started with the late David Frost, raised over £250,000 on the day for Wellbeing of Women, which funds research into premature births, IVF and the menopause.

Sir Martin survived several overs bowled by Wasim Akram. Not bad for 70 not out.

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