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Osborne commits billions to infrastructure

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Date: Mon 24/Jun/2013, 10:50

George Osborne will this week commit tens of billions of pounds to big infrastructure projects as he seeks to shift the political focus away from spending cuts – finalised on Sunday – and on to a “recovery” phase for the economy.

The Treasury announced on Sunday night it had reached deals with all cabinet ministers for budget cuts worth a total of £11.5bn ahead of the chancellor’s spending review statement on Wednesday.

The spending round was concluded after Vince Cable – the last minister still holding out against proposed cuts – agreed a settlement which he believes will still allow his business department to support growth.

With the cuts now agreed for the 2015-16 financial year – which straddles the general election scheduled for May 2015 – Mr Osborne will try to move the debate on to his longer-term vision to revive the economy.

The chancellor will insist that his fiscal discipline has created space for investment in roads, broadband and energy projects.

His statement is expected to start a bidding war over which party will spend most in the next parliament on capital projects; Labour leader Ed Miliband also wants to “build Britain out of recession” with an emphasis on housing.

Ed Balls, shadow chancellor, on Sunday confirmed that Labour could borrow more money to outspend the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats on investment, while at the same time matching the coalition’s fiscal discipline on current spending.

But business leaders will be sceptical over whether the politicians can turn rhetoric into action. Figures show infrastructure spending in the first quarter fell 50 per cent on the previous quarter and nearly 40 per cent on the previous year. Industry experts complain that a stream of policy announcements has obscured a declining number of “shovel ready” policies, almost three years after the coalition published a £250bn shopping list of projects in its national infrastructure plan.

Mr Osborne’s statement on Wednesday is primarily about implementing a sixth year of cuts by the coalition; a total of £11.5bn will be taken out of the budgets of “unprotected” departments in 2015-16.

Philip Hammond, defence secretary, settled his budget on Saturday night and has succeeded in protecting the frontline from cuts; savings will be focused on cutting civilian staff, renegotiating contracts and other efficiencies. Mr Cable settled yesterday afternoon; his department is said to have sustained cuts close to the 8pc average.

Against a gloomy backdrop of cuts, Mr Osborne will use his statement to signal his focus on recovery by committing to long-term infrastructure plans over the next five years. “I think we are out of intensive care and our job now is to secure the recovery,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme.

Danny Alexander, Lib Dem Treasury chief secretary, will identify the priority projects on Thursday, earmarking some of the roughly £250bn of capital spending implied by the coalition’s spending plans in the next parliament.

Projects expected to be promoted are the long-awaited widening of the A14 – a congested freight artery – the Mersey Gateway bridge in the north west, initial funding for the HS2 rail line, broadband roll out and green energy schemes.

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