Britain's Infrastructure Will Be Neglected As Government Frets Over Brexit Warns Top Adviser

Government ministers "obsessing" over Brexit risk scuppering future development in transport and housing and harming Britain's dwindling productivity growth, National Infrastructure Commission chair Andrew Adonis has warned.

Adonis's claim, made in an interview with Newsweek on Thursday (30 November), three days before Social Mobility Commission chair Alan Milburn's resignation on Sunday, further highlights Theresa May's struggle to deliver a significant domestic agenda at the same time as conducting ferociously complicated Brexit preparations.

Elsewhere in the interview, Adonis also warned that delaying the decision to expand Heathrow airport would damage Brexiteers' plans to develop British trading links outside of Europe.

"The best thing for the country is that we are very bold on infrastructure, and we are very anti-Brexit," Adonis, who has been an active pro-EU campaigner, said.

Andrew Adonis George Osborne
Andrew Adonis (L) speaks alongside ex-Chancellor George Osborne at the launch of the National Infrastructure Commission, October 30, 2015. October has warned about the impact of Brexit on infrastructure. Andrew Yates/Reuters

A former transport secretary in the last Labour government and a Labour peer, Adonis was handed his current brief, providing independent advice to the government on infrastructure, by George Osborne in 2015.

"70 percent of officials, senior officials, are one way or another tied up with Brexit, either completely or tangentially," Adonis said, "it's a huge sapping of their energy, and it's true of ministers too."

"Probably the majority of ministers in the government, one way or another, are obsessing about Brexit including, crucially, the prime minister who thinks about almost nothing else, the foreign secretary, who is… very concerned about Brexit, and the chancellor too.

"So the three key office holders in the government, basically they're living and breathing Brexit at the moment, whereas what they should be living and breathing is the growth and productivity of the country, which of course is lamentable."

Milburn, also a former Labour minister who was appointed to chair the independent Social Mobility Commission under David Cameron in 2012, quit on 3 December, saying the government is "focused on Brexit" and "does not seem to have the necessary bandwidth to ensure that the rhetoric of healing social division is matched with the reality."

Adonis, for his part, said that "I will carry on for as long as I have a useful job to do."

Britain is well-positioned to embark on large-scale infrastructure development in the coming years, Adonis said, pointing for example to the forthcoming HS2 rail development, which he said is progressing well and "gives me real confidence that we can improve further in future." Adonis is one of the project's earliest supporters.

He also welcomed the resources allocated in the budget to developing rail links and homes in the commercially important area surrounding Oxford, Cambridge and Milton Keynes, which the commission had been calling for.

But, Adonis warned, "If Brexit has the effect of significantly reducing our growth rate, then there's going to be... fewer proceeds of growth from which to fund anything.

"We'll just do less, I don't know how much less, but we'll clearly do less than we otherwise would have done, there'll be less money, there'll be less attention, there'll be less passion behind these issues of infrastructure and productivity, and that would be sad.

"There are quite a number of ministers in the growth and infrastructure planning departments—transport, communities and local government, BEIS... who are seriously concerned about these productivity and infrastructure issues.

"But to get really big decisions taken, and big funds allocated, you of course have got to have the prime minister and the chancellor.

Both politicians are "very well-intentioned" towards infrastructure, Adonis said. But "If they could spend a fraction of the time they're spending on Brexit on dealing with the productivity and infrastructure challenges that we face, I reckon I could probably get HS2 built in ten years, all the way up to Manchester and Leeds."

Adonis also accused Boris Johnson and other Brexiteers of an "entirely inconsistent" position on Heathrow, where the foreign secretary has been a long-standing opponent to building a third runway.

Heathrow Airport
Birds fly past an aircraft making its approach to Heathrow airport in London, Britain, October 30 2017. Toby Melville/Reuters

"Heathrow is a running sore in our infrastructure planning as a country and we have got to get this decision taken," Adonis said, on the issue that has been clogging up government's to-do list since David Cameron's tenure as prime minister.

"For the Brexiteers, it's far more important. Because the whole burden of their argument is that we're going to replace trade in Europe with trade beyond Europe.

"The problem is that a substantial portion of the destinations beyond Europe with which Dr Fox wants us to trade, there are no direct flights to [and] from London because Heathrow is full.

"There are flights to them from Charles de Gaulle, which has four runways, Schipol, which has six runways, and Frankfurt, which has four runways.

"But from two runway Heathrow there's a big sign outside saying 'closed for further business,' which of course is insane if your whole strategy is trade beyond Europe."

Overall, Adonis said, British politics needed more moderation.

"Too often commentators think that centrists are weak, and extremists are tough," he said, "whereas people who actually believe in consensus, evidence based policy, rational decision making—there's no reason why they can't also be every bit as tough.

"This extremism nonsense which we get from the left and the right, the hard left and the hard right, which is what's leading to Brexit, needs to be killed."