PM Boris Johnson demands Britain 'Build, build, build' to beat Covid-19 slump

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced plans to speed up government infrastructure spending. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (REUTERS) - Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to shake Britain's economy out of its coronavirus-induced crisis on Tuesday (June 30), by fast-tracking infrastructure investment and slashing property planning rules.

As Britain emerges from lockdown, Mr Johnson is looking to move past criticism of his government's handling of the pandemic with a plan to repair the economic damage and reshape the country.

"We cannot continue simply to be prisoners of the crisis,"Mr Johnson said. "We must work fast because we've already seen the vertiginous drop in GDP and we know that people are worried now about their jobs and their businesses."

His message, delivered at a college in the central English town of Dudley, was overshadowed by the announcement of a fresh lockdown in Leicester, just 80km away, where Covid-19 infections are surging.

Nevertheless, with an exhortation to "build, build, build", Mr Johnson announced plans to speed up government infrastructure spending and "scythe through red tape" around planning to make property development easier.

"We will build the hospitals, build the schools, the colleges. But we will also build back greener and build a more beautiful Britain," he said.

He promised not to cut spending and compared his plan to former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" programme of the 1930s, which included job-creating public work projects to help the United States recover from the Great Depression.

"I'm conscious ... that it sounds like a prodigious amount of government intervention, sounds like a new deal... If that is so, then that is how it's meant to sound," Mr Johnson said.

Tuesday's headline spending announcement of 5 billion pounds (S$8.57 billion), announced ahead of the speech, amounts to around 5 per cent of gross public sector investment last year.

Most had already been announced and is only being spent sooner than planned.

Ms Kate Forbes, finance secretary for the devolved Scottish government, was among those questioning the size of the investment.

"Germany announced a stimulus package of 4 per cent of its GDP. The equivalent for the UK would be £80 billion. So, not only is £5 billion eye-wateringly short of a 'New Deal'', it falls short of other countries too," she said in a tweet.

The 5 billion pounds of accelerated investment will be made up of projects including hospitals, schools and roads. Finance minister Rishi Sunak will announce further details next week.

Britain's recent history also shows that big infrastructure projects are difficult to deliver.

A new underground train line in central London is over budget and late, as is a north-south high speed rail link. After decades of discussing airport expansion at London Heathrow, the project remains mired in legal challenges.

"The key now is to ensure that these projects get off the ground as a matter of urgency," manufacturing trade body Make UK said.

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