Malcolm Walker Retail Week Columns

UK needs infrastructure investment

Retail is being held back by poor roads and patchy online coverage

Even the most committed small-state libertarian wants to find a well-maintained road when he drives out of his house. These days easy access to the information superhighway is pretty vital, too.

I had time to reflect on the UK’s performance in these areas during a recent holiday in the Caribbean. The weather was better there, as you would expect. But so too was the mobile phone signal. Sailing from Antigua to the Grenadines, we could pick up 3G and 4G signals from every tiny island along the way.

I found the same thing earlier in the year when I went to Botswana, and they assure me that now you can even get 4G on Mount Everest.

Yet mobile reception and internet access are virtually non-existent where I live in Cheshire and at the nearby houses of my three children, all of whom have inherited at least some of my entrepreneurial genes and are trying to run businesses from home.

My mobile phone does not work in my office at Iceland either, in the middle of one of the largest industrial estates in Europe. Try taking a business call on the M56 motorway between Deeside and Manchester and you’ll find that there is no reception for at least half the way.

Perhaps that is to ensure no-one loses focus for a second on the important task of steering around potholes, which are now a major hazard on every class of British road. Secondary routes in the countryside are positively dangerous, and expensive – I recently spent £4,000 repairing pothole damage to my car.

Those people who write to their local papers bemoaning our ‘Third World’ standards really should get out more. The infrastructure here is in worse shape than in many poorer countries. And this affects all of us as retailers.

How can I take quick decisions to grow a business employing 25,000 people when I cannot get onto the internet or send emails via my landline at home? How are our customers supposed to spend with us if driving into town is hazardous and access to the web for online shopping is painfully slow or simply non-existent?

We’ve been told for years that the coffers are empty, but you don’t have to be a Daily Mail reader to know that waste remains endemic in local and national government, and in the quangos to which they have delegated so much of their authority.

Iceland has paid around £600m into the Government’s coffers over the last eight years alone, and I’d like to see some return on our investment. Specifically, a fundamental reordering of priorities to put improving infrastructure right at the top of the list: whether that is repairing roads, constructing HS2, increasing airport capacity, accelerating the roll-out of superfast broadband or building more half-decent flood defences.

This isn’t an argument for a massive increase in state intervention across the economy. It’s a plea for the state to focus on the things that only it can do: building and maintaining an infrastructure that actually works so that private enterprise can flourish.

Politicians of all parties should stop chasing tomorrow’s headlines and focus on building a country that actually works for our children and grandchildren. If they do, they will be creating the right environment in which businesses like the Icelands of tomorrow can grow up to create more jobs and pay more taxes.

I think they call that a virtuous circle, don’t they?

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