This brief essay sets out the main elements of my presentation at the SURF conference held in May 2013 – the principal theme of which was to consider the community regeneration outcomes of physical infrastructure investment? I offer a cautionary note as to the current fervour to promote infrastructure as I consider the evidence – drawn from political debate and rhetoric, media assertions, the advocacy of think tanks and from academic deliberations and research evidence – suggests that the concept of infrastructure is very misunderstood.
In reality infrastructure considerations are layered and contested and raise serious questions about how we organise our collective lives. Infrastructure is an integral part of our economic, social and environmental well-being. Moreover, the state of our infrastructure reflects the overall quality of life in contemporary society. It says something about how we value the wider public interest, and strikes at the core of modern politics, policy and governance. We have collectively failed to provide for thoughtful, informed forward looking investment in our infrastructure. This note may not follow the precise logic of my verbal presentation but seeks to capture its essence.
Understandings of infrastructure
Infrastructure is a means to an end – to facilitate the use and development of land for the wider socio-political purpose – which may be constructed as an expression of the public interest. It is also emblematic of the ‘state of society’. It is at once beguiling – as it signifies the ability to ensure the well being of our day to day activities – and provides the framework within which communities operate – and it engenders a sense of well-being that all is in order. Infrastructure has become ubiquitous – in that it is often stridently advocated by political positions of all stripes as a panacea to kick start the economy, create jobs and investment, provide facilities for community well being, and offer a way to address green or environmental concerns, such as flooding.
The concept of infrastructure has also become more abstract – reference is made to it in the most generalised terms – with the asserted benefits of job creation and new economic growth potential waved about with abandon yet with little tangible causal tracks articulated. Essentially it affirms Michael Sandel’s critically perceptive observation that whilst we used to ‘have’ a market economy we now have ‘become’ one – the idea of infrastructure is simply seen as ‘kit’ or a service and its provision is held to require no further explanation or justification. Infrastructure is held to be good thing and therefore leads to good things without explanation!!
Infrastructure is a contested concept. Simon Jenkins, for example, writing recently in the Guardian argues that seeking economic reflation though investment in infrastructure is not necessarily effective or efficient – he takes the view that the full economic impact of infrastructure investment is steadily eroded by legal and consultancy fees. Indeed, he argues that a greater economic benefit would be derived by spreading the equivalent resource to each individual to spend in the economy. That would, he contends, lead to a greater chance of securing economic reflation.
Infrastructure is nonetheless a global issue – President Obama recently announced two major new initiatives – the “Fix it First” programme which is designed to improve the worst infrastructures across the US; and the National Infrastructure Bank which is intended to provide longer term financing to encourage the foundations of economic growth. Tellingly, his rationale for the measures included job creation, improving economic/ transport cogs and because it was “an easy idea to sell”. This would suggest the political quick fix – illustrating the points made above – and it is disappointing to see such shallow thinking being articulated from the country that innovated with great effect with the New Deal and the Tennessee Valley Authority as a response to the Great Depression.
It is also the case that what we consider to be infrastructure has changed as a consequence of the overall economic environment. Conventionally infrastructure refers to the strategic services such as roads, bridges, water and sewerage – in a sense the kit that supports land and property developments and enables the economy to work and grow efficiently and effectively. Infrastructure has also included the site specific services associated with individual land development schemes – such as street lighting, open space and community facilities.
Today it may be argued, however, that the economic recession has exposed gaps in what was previously considered the private domain. This may include, for example, the deficits now evident in (say) retailing. The British Retail Consortium recently published data relating to shop vacancies in the UK (11.9%) – Scotland at 10%, Wales 17.9% and Northern Ireland 18.1%. Interestingly, footfall at out of town centres is also declining – and taken together this may presage a diminution of the traditional retailing infrastructure. This broader perspective suggests we need to be very careful about advocating infrastructure investment in a partial way.
Debates about infrastructure are complex and are contested – and need then to be fully conceptualised and contextualised. The current propensity to advocate infrastructure (even in bland, unsubstantiated general terms) has to be seen in terms of the cumulative influence and impacts of the prevailing economic recession, the deflated demand for goods and services, an unbalanced supply (with oversupply and undersupply both operating – as with housing), divided path dependent geographies of relative economic performance exacerbating historical experiences, increasing social and community distress, and increasing environmental vulnerabilities. All of these have significant distributional implications – flooding for example impacts most severely on those least able to afford the costs and damage.
Over and above such a catalogue there are collective moral deficits which were observed in the earlier unsustainable economic and property bubbles – as articulated by the late Tony Judt. Indeed, arguably, following Eric Hobsbawn there is a now a case to assert a new moral imperative and apply it both generally in society and, for the purposes of this note, specifically with respect to infrastructure provision. In effect, there is a case for a deliberate normative agenda for action and intervention in infrastructure. In these critically dystopic circumstances then, infrastructure assumes highly specific meanings. It is essentially highly loaded, open to conjecture and open to capture.
It is important to acknowledge that the practical arrangements for infrastructure have a powerful temporal dimension – there have been significant changes in the ways in which infrastructure has been provided over time. There is a past, a present and a future to consider with respect to infrastructure debates. Each presents sets of different issues which serve to combine powerfully to create the complexities that are the essence of infrastructure.
The history of infrastructure in the UK, for example, shows a woeful lack of positive, forward thinking provision – in strategic and site specific terms – and moreover an evident lack of integrated provision. Think of the standards of integrated transport networks in the UK when compared to our European neighbours. We live with an infrastructure deficit and in certain instances – particularly with respect to our Victorian water and sewerage provision – the clock is ticking.
The present is characterised by conflicting perspectives. There are confused debates, divergent clarion calls for action and whilst advocacy for more infrastructure as the magic bullet there is very little real movement. The future is even more opaque with little strategic thinking evident. Two examples illustrate these observations – and both raise concerns over the efficiency, effectiveness and social justice or distributional dimensions of infrastructure questions.
The UK Flood and Water Management Act 2010, for example, whilst noting the risk of flooding in England (5.2 million houses at risk) argued that spending on flood prevention had doubled over ten years. Yet, an unpublished Environment Agency report (The Guardian, May 18, 2013) on national flood risk assessment suggests government spending has fallen by 26% and there remains uncertainty over an agreement between government and the insurance industry to ensure appropriate and affordable provision for those most at risk.
A recent Public Accounts Committee report into the first National Infrastructure Plan 2010 – the latest update of which was published in December 2012 – and which comprises over 500 prospective programmes and projects for new economic infrastructure and which is expected to cost £310 billion – does not convey confidence. The Committee is, amongst a litany of powerful observations, not convinced that the current proposals represent a rigorous plan with clear priorities for action or with a clear programme for delivery. Further, there is not a properly targeted and prioritised infrastructure plan. There is a distributional aspect – as the cost of the economic infrastructure investment required will be in the private sector using investment supported by government with households bearing the costs through higher bills or fares.
A tragedy of the commons?
It is important to consider why the future is so poorly planned for with respect to infrastructure. I would suggest a perfect storm of two principal reasons. First, there is a theoretical misunderstanding of the very nature of infrastructure. Second, there is the ideological context in which infrastructure debates are being conducted. These dimensions blend together to create what must be viewed as a very real miasma of concern.
In the first place, infrastructure goods and services have very peculiar economic characteristics associated with what are called ‘public goods’. The very nature of strategic and site specific infrastructure services suggests that once provided it is difficult to exclude consumers from using it, and where the consumption of the infrastructure by one individual does not reduce its availability to others. All within reason of course – but the outcome is that private market processes find such poorly defined and enforced property rights difficult to manage.
As a consequence, if left to the free market, infrastructure services would either be under-provided or not provided at all. There are examples all around us – think of the state of private roads, think of the provision of infrastructure for houses scattered across the countryside. The provision of public goods tend to be subject to free riders – using the water or waste network without contributing to its provision – and can result in what is described as the “tragedy of the commons” – its overuse – or as Ben Davy recently described it – the “tragedy of the community” – because infrastructure is not an antiseptic entity – it is defined, created and used by society as a whole. Following this logic it is not appropriate to consider infrastructure as an instrumental policy instrument it is potentially transformative – but society does not acknowledge that possibility.
The second factor explains that myopia – the ideological context to current infrastructure debates is inhibiting. The account by Dimitris Milonakis and Ben Fine makes for compelling reading about the changing parameters to economic analysis, reasoning and prescription. Neo-liberal values and thinking define very narrow parameters to policy innovation and intervention. Market rules must prevail and government action, public expenditure and policy intervention are treated as failures. So, the neo-liberal agenda for infrastructure provision is predicated on private finance, design and delivery with government restricted to underwriting investments and returns and creating the regulatory environments which are held to be suitable for private sector engagement. The costs of infrastructure services inevitably fall to the consumer with little reference to ability to pay – so neo-liberalism involves limited technocratic possibilities with extensive and regressive distributional impacts.
Infrastructure matters!! Infrastructure is a necessary dimension to modern life and well-being yet it is not sufficient. It must be seen as integral to society, communities and localities. It is about the quality of life of economic activity, individuals, households and businesses, and the stewardship of the natural and built environments. It is not about the simplistic provision of infrastructure services but potentially about the transformation of our shared futures. There are a number of issues that could be addressed with respect to infrastructure. First, there has to be a robust rethinking and open interrogation of the principles underlying current economic debates, policies and priorities. Current discourses are clouded and fudged and the real values and assumptions of economic matters are misunderstood. There is a public interest and there has to be an appropriate balance with the private interest and one which is acknowledged as involving different time scales. Infrastructure is about the future and time is never ending. Second, debates about infrastructure must recognise that the metrics are not about costs but about investment in social, economic and environmental well-being. Recasting the perspective is important for any future infrastructure considerations. Third, the priorities for infrastructure provisions have to be made – and decision makers to be brave – as the instinctive tendency is to view infrastructure in engineering terms. There is a powerful social and community dimension and that needs equal consideration. Finally, any discussion about infrastructure must not fall into the trap of assuming continued economic growth. Infrastructure must be viewed in its context – and the nature of that future requires open and brave debates. That prerequisite is currently missing from the infrastructure metric – as well as infrastructure itself.
Simon Jenkins (2013) More spending? The coalition may as well build a bridge to the moon. The Guardian March 7.
Tony Judt (2011) Ill fares the land. A treatise on our present discontents. London, Allen Lane.
Michael Sandel (2012. What Money Can’t Buy. The Moral Limits of Markets. London, Allen Lane
Eric Hobsbawn (2013) Fractured times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century London, Little, Brown Book Group.
Dimitris Milonakis and Ben Fine (2009) From Political Economy to Economics. Method, the social and historical in the evolution of economic theory. London, Routledge.
School of the Built Environment
University of Ulster