Op Ed

The problem isn’t protestors, it’s policymakers

By - World Infrastructure Journal

The problem isn’t protestors, it’s policymakers

Updating the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to include harsher penalties for those who block roadways will not make the UK’s transport network more efficient. It will, however, serve to further silence the voices of people whose concerns should be at the front and centre of the UK’s “infrastructure revolution. ”

First published on 9 March, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill is in the process of being updated with a suite of amendments from Home Secretary Priti Patel. Included in these additions to the proposed bill will be tougher penalties for the likes of Insulate UK, whose ongoing protests on British motorways have been deemed to have caused “significant disruption and misery to millions of people in recent weeks. ” 

Currently, blocking a roadway carries a maximum penalty of a £1,000 fine – under the new bill however protestors could be fined an unlimited amount, spend up to six months in prison, or both. The stated reasoning for these new measures is that protesting on roadways (and other areas of key infrastructure such as airports and railways) blocks the flow of essential goods such as fuels and medicine. However, given that the UK has been experiencing significant supply issues in recent weeks – and those issues can be solely attributed to the failure of policymakers to deliver a workable post-Brexit supply chain – the argument that protests on motorways are the cause of “significant disruption” seems rather specious.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has claimed that ongoing supply shortages are simply the result of a “period of adjustment,” even though many of the causes of these delays (such as the effect of low wages on the UK haulage industry) were apparent long before the Brexit campaign itself. Given this blasé approach to a legitimate threat to the sustainability of the UK’s consumer economy, the ire that has been directed towards Insulate UK and other protestors by policymakers is rather worrying.

Though they do occasionally cause delays, placing harsh limits on the ability of groups such as Insulate UK to protest is bad for democracy and bad for the UK’s dream of an “infrastructure revolution. ” Building back better will require policymakers to bridge regional and social gaps and doing so will mean addressing existing issues with infrastructure and communicating with those affected by those issues.

After decades of neglect, Britain’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and is no longer able to reliably support an economy of the UK’s size. In 2014 the UK’s public transport network received a ‘D-’ grade from the Institution of Civil Engineers (down from a ‘D’ in 2010). In the same report, strategic transport received a ‘B-’ grade (down from a ‘B’ in 2010). In 2015, the OECD found that that UK infrastructure has suffered from under-investment compared with some competitor countries since the 1980s.

In 2017, a report commissioned by the FairFuelUK campaign found that the UK’s road infrastructure was 27th in the world – with its main highways in worse condition than those in developing economies such as Namibia. Three years later, RAC Limited noted that despite the drop in traffic precipitated by COVID-19, there was a “significant increase” in the number of drivers complaining about the condition of council-maintained roads.

The effect of these delays is quantifiable. In a 2005 report by GLA Economics and Transport for London, the economic impact of delays in London was estimated to be the equivalent of “about £4.5 million per business day or £830 a year for each person working in Central London. ”

Moreover, in a recent study commissioned by the Welsh Senedd, the “quality of road links was cited as an explanatory factor in accounting for lack of demand for sites and, indeed, inability to attract mobile investment. ”

These issues with physical infrastructure are compounded by the unclear and often needlessly bureaucratic nature of existing policy frameworks around the trade of goods. The UK’s ongoing supply issues are largely the result of a failure to create workable frameworks to ease the post-Brexit transition. These could have, for instance, simplified the employment of seasonal agricultural workers and the passage of goods through customs.

“Levelling up” will require the UK to address longstanding regional and social inequalities – and banning protests that often centre on these issues is not conducive to the healthy democracy that will be needed to address those issues. The UK is currently looking to deliver the “infrastructure revolution” promised in the 2019 Conservative Manifesto, in the hopes of not only addressing climate change – but also the fissures in British society that have been deepened by decades of austerity. As Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak himself stated, new institutions such as the UK Infrastructure Bank are meant to invest “billions of pounds in world-class infrastructure that will support people, businesses and communities in every corner of the UK. ” 

Bridging that divide, however, will not only require a monetary investment. Policymakers will need to be attentive to the varying needs of different regions and groups if they are to ensure that the process of “levelling up” is a rising tide that lifts all boats. The protestors from Insulate UK are an excellent example of such a group. Though their tactics may not be popular with everyone, their advocacy for the UK to insulate “all of Britain’s 29 million homes by 2030” is needed.

While the UK has made great strides within its energy sector, both the transport and housing sectors have lagged behind. Buildings are responsible for 17 per cent of the UK’s emissions, and poor insulation is partially responsible for the roughly 17,000 deaths caused annually by fuel poverty. However, there has been little attention on insulation from the UK government, and the recent Social Housing White Paper’s recommendation to review the Decent Homes Standard was absent from the commitments made in the Queen’s Speech.

It is, as such, incredibly worrying that the protests of Insulate UK and other activist groups have been met with the forceful response of the PCSC, which in the words of Kenan Malik reduces the right to protest to “whispering in the corner. ” The UK’s current predicament, socially divided and short on supplies, is the result of decades of reactive policymaking that have only deepened existing division. Should this government hope to exculpate themselves from the mire they find themselves in, that tradition of policymaking will have to change.

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