Rob Burnell is regional director of Randstad UK
There are two people who could become the next prime minister. The recent polling suggests Liz Truss has it in the bag. Rishi Sunak needs to be radical if he’s going to move the needle and generate a last minute surge of support for his bid for Number 10.
Truss has set out some ideas that chime with the construction industry. What policies should Rishi Sunak commit to in order to turn the tide and win over the sector?
“Sunak’s NIMBY policy makes for a very stark contrast to Liz Truss’s pro-housebuilding stance”
First, Sunak needs to row back on the protection of the green belt as one of his key policies. England needs to build 300,000 new homes a year. The housing market in this country is broken, and the cause is very simple: for too long, we haven’t built enough homes. Sunak’s NIMBY policy makes for a very stark contrast to Liz Truss’s pro-housebuilding stance.
Sunak needs to start backing the plans for HS3/Northern Powerhouse Rail and at least match Truss’s commitment to big infrastructure projects. During the first official hustings of the Tory leadership campaign she pledged to deliver the Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme in full.
Then Rishi should reinstate the now defunct eastern spur of HS2 (Truss has ruled out backtracking on the decision to cancel the £32bn eastern leg to Leeds), as well as delivering the Midlands Rail Hub – a £2bn package of measures intended to create extra rail capacity for both passengers and freight between the East Midlands and South Wales – East West Rail, and the digitalisation of the railways (with the replacement of two-thirds of our signalling over the next decade and a half). The industry needs a commitment to accelerate plans on electrification.
Sunak also needs to get Crossrail 2 back on track. Crossrail 2 will deliver much-needed additional capacity across the south-east and move people away from transport bottlenecks such as Euston, where HS2 terminates. In 2016, the National Infrastructure Commission said Crossrail 2 should be taken forward “as a priority” and recommended the line open in 2033.
Building the line wouldn’t be cheap or easy. Construction estimates are around £12bn and crowded subterranean London is becoming more and more difficult to dig through.
But Crossrail 2 is essential to deal with London’s growing population. The capital is growing fast. London is facing a £1.3tn infrastructure funding gap at the same time as the population is expected to hit 11 million by 2050, requiring huge investment in new and existing infrastructure. How will it cope in 2030, with perhaps another 1.8 million Londoners and 700,000 more jobs than in 2013, when George Osborne put aside £2m to investigate Crossrail 2 in his spending review?
Even with Crossrail 1 and the tube upgrades, congestion on the Victoria, Piccadilly and Northern lines especially will be unbearable by then: the projections are really quite alarming. Crossrail 2, running through Clapham, Victoria, Tottenham Court Road, Euston and King’s Cross, would transform that crush and take pressure off some above-ground lines too.
Given that a south-west/north-east tube line was originally planned as early as 1901, it doesn’t seem crazy to put Crossrail 2 back on the table. While the development of projects in the capital, including the upgrading of rolling stock and signalling systems, the extension of the Bakerloo line, taking the DLR to Thamesmead, and Crossrail 2, has been paused, the short-term shock of the pandemic should not be allowed to prevent long-term planning.
Invest to grow
These Grands Projets support thousands of jobs, billions of pounds of GVA and tax revenues and connect communities, and for every pound spent on rail, £2.50 is generated in the wider economy. Sunak can’t keep looking at them as a drain on resources.
Sunak has also said he would like to see the UK energy-independent by 2045. Here he needs to wholeheartedly back Rolls-Royce as it moves ahead with its multi-billion pound plan to roll out a new breed of mini nuclear reactors.
Truss has said she will support nuclear power, moving forward faster, including major stations, but also small modular reactors. But in the past Sunak has resisted demands to dramatically increase the number of nuclear power stations over the next 25 years.
In the spring Boris Johnson is understood to have wanted Britain to generate around 25 per cent of its electricity from nuclear by 2050, which would require six or seven new nuclear power stations to be built. Mr Sunak resisted those demands. We now need him to commit to them.
The nuclear option
But this new generation of small modular reactors will be quicker and cheaper to roll out than traditional large-scale nuclear reactors – such as the 3,200MW Hinkley Point C project – which face enormous construction risks and are prone to spiralling costs and delays. Hinkley Point C reactor was initially expected to cost £18bn, but the figure has climbed to about £23bn at the Somerset site as EDF and ministers struggled to agree a new funding framework for a successor project at Sizewell C in Suffolk.
Rolling out the first of these mini reactors – based on a similar technology used to propel nuclear submarines – would harness decades of British engineering, design and manufacturing know-how.
Backing the UK’s construction industry, fixing our ageing infrastructure and making us energy self-sufficient is the only way Rishi Sunak can match Liz Truss’s ostentatious Victorian attitude to building – and win the hearts and minds of the construction sector.