28th March 2023
HS2 workersGetty Images

The government’s targets for “levelling up” and “net zero” are at risk if too much investment spending is cut in the Autumn Statement, its top adviser on infrastructure has warned.

The head of the National Infrastructure Commission told the BBC it was crucial the government stuck to its policies.

Sir John Armitt said cutting back on the HS2 rail route would be “silly”.

Last week, the government confirmed that much infrastructure spending was under review.

On Thursday, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt will unveil his Autumn Statement – a Budget in all but name – and he has already said that he faces decisions of “eye-watering difficulty”.

Speaking to the BBC, Sir John said: “Clearly we’re in a very difficult situation. The chancellor has real challenges and therefore one can understand there might be some pressure on infrastructure.

“On the other hand infrastructure is seen as being the economic driver for many parts of the country, particularly those parts of the country which are looking to level up.

“It’s so important that government doesn’t flip flop, it sticks to its ambition, it sticks to its policies, so that the private sector will bring in a lot of capital, which creates jobs and opportunity.

“To cut back on HS2 would be frankly very silly,” he added. “I think you’ve got massive investment, which has happened in Birmingham ahead of HS2 – it just shows what can happen. And Manchester of course equally is now seeing investment off the back of HS2. I think that would be a very strange decision.”

He said that scheme and the Integrated Rail Review were “very important for levelling up”.

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Some economists anticipate that the government will squeeze investment spending on Thursday because in history it has been seen as the easiest “big ticket” spending item for the Treasury to delay.

There has also been a relative boost to investment spending at the very beginning of this Parliament under the initial premiership of Boris Johnson up to above £70bn a year in public sector net investment.

But Sir John disputed the idea there had been an infrastructure boom, saying: “If you look at the numbers, there’s been a decrease in investment in the last couple of years, not a ramp up. There’s been talk of a ramp up and that’s why it’s important to maintain that belief that there needs to be a ramp up.”

With COP27 climate talks still ongoing, Sir John also expressed concern about the delivery of investment required to hit net zero targets for carbon emissions, saying the UK risked falling behind other countries.

“If everybody stuck to the policies, we’d get to net zero. The actual delivery is where we’re falling down. So we can’t afford to take our foot off the pedal, we’ve got to keep going, otherwise we will not get to net zero.”

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