HL Deb 16 July 2003 vol 651 cc852-4

2.51 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they last conducted a survey of the national infrastructure; and whether they will consider the appointment of a chief government engineer to ensure that there is a co-ordinated, long-term and sustainable approach to its renewal.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, the Government are committed to providing a sustainable public sector infrastructure to ensure the delivery of high quality public services and are substantially increasing public sector net investment to a planned level of 2 per cent of GDP by 2005–06. The UK's national infrastructure covers areas as diverse as energy, water and flood management, transport and waste. In many of these sectors the assets are owned by private companies. The Government do not believe that it would be desirable to give responsibility for these diverse sectors to a chief government engineer or to conduct a national survey of infrastructure because it would add nothing to current monitoring and enforcement activities.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, not least because on the previous occasion when this matter was raised in Parliament—four years ago in another place—that Minister ran out of time before he could respond.

Has the Minister read the admirable report entitled The State of the Nation 2003 prepared by the Institution of Civil Engineers? It gives a detailed report on the various parts of the infrastructure and stresses the need for an overall government approach to be taken to it. Does the Minister really think what he said in his Answer will ensure that the shortcomings revealed in this report will be put right in the near future?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I have read the report from the Institution of Civil Engineers because I responded to a Question on it on Monday. I thought that I had better read it, whereas normally I might not have done so. The question of a national survey is raised in the report but, as I have said, I do not think that such a survey would do any good in terms of dealing with any defects we have in this area. Moreover, having read the report, I cannot see any arguments put forward which would make me change my view.

To my way of thinking, there is nothing to be said for trying to co-ordinate the infrastructure on gas with water or, say, telecommunications with transport. These are completely different sectors and so nothing would be gained from a total survey other than more delays and bureaucracy.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, does the noble Lord realise that his response has given a great deal of pleasure in so far as it indicates that the Government have decided—remarkably—not to increase the amount of bureaucracy when asked whether they would like to do so?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I am delighted as always to give the noble Earl pleasure in this or in any other area of argument.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, what happened to the plan discussed a few years ago to map every street for gas, water and electricity supplies, which would have been a most wonderful piece of bureaucracy? Did not the government of the day decide that the exercise would be too expensive? Is it necessary today, or do all the infrastructure companies dig up the roads in the right place, at the right time, and to the maximum convenience of road users?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, any information that exists on that is so deeply buried in the bureaucracy that it has not come to my attention.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, does not the noble Lord agree that, even though the Government have decided that they would not wish to proceed with the appointment of a chief government engineer, as suggested by the Institution of Civil Engineers, nevertheless they should consider whether there should be some greater coordination of infrastructure development? For example, have they considered the success of the French Commissariat du Plan which, over the years, has delivered so much to the French infrastructure? Should we not learn from the experience of others?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the thrust of the argument set out in the report from the Institution of Civil Engineers was that if a chief government engineer was appointed, all these questions could be taken out of politics and decided on the basis of independent expert advice. Having dealt with Questions in this House on matters such as energy, I am very sceptical whether an independent government engineer could in some way resolve the many issues we have to consider politically, such as different forms of energy or road transport funding. I do not think that such matters can be taken out of political decision-making or, indeed, out of the overall economic framework. Therefore I do not think that this would be productive.