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Deborah Mattinson: CPRE infrastructure lecture 2016

Deborah Mattinson, Founder Partner, Britain Thinks  -  speaking at CPRE's NIC lecture on 6 December 2016 

I’m going to talk mainly about where the public is on infrastructure. Where are the public on this incredibly important issue then? Before I talk about that, I want to go back a little step and talk about where the public is in a more general sense because there’s some very important context.
What we have at the moment, and we mustn’t forget this right now, is quite a lot of angry voters.

We have a public here in this country and in Europe and around the world who are not happy with what they’re seeing. In a Britain Thinks survey recently, almost 60% of people find themselves have-nots; 70% say pretty much anything the government does doesn’t have a positive impact on their lives – 70% think what the government does has no positive impact on their lives.

What that is resulting in is an anti-elite movement. I think that’s very important context. What we have is what’s often referred to as a post-truth democracy where people’s emotional reactions matter more than logic and rational reaction. I would say that what enabled that to happen and what went before that was the post-trust democracy. So trust had broken down, which is why people stopped believing anything politicians, civil servants and other very senior elite audiences told them. So that’s the backdrop.

In terms of what issues people are concerned about, infrastructure is not anywhere on that list as a global topic. The top two issues right now are the NHS and immigration. Housing is the first broad infrastructure issue which features, and so that contextualises everything.

Where is the public on the state of Britain’s infrastructure? Luke warm is the best way to describe it. 36% say they’re generally satisfied but 29% say they’re dissatisfied, and 32% can’t bring themselves to have a point of view either way. There are some issues to deal with. Having said that, the public overwhelmingly thinks infrastructure spending is important but they want it to be spent in the way that they want it to be spent and on their priorities. So what are they? Well, they are going to put housing quite high up that list. 48% think that that is the most important aspect of infrastructure whereas we see other issues like transport slipping much lower down. So they think that the spending is important. They are willing to accept certain trade-offs as well; they’re not children about this. So 44% back more government borrowing to fund infrastructure spending; 42% say they are happy to accept foreign investment for quicker delivery of project and only 20% oppose that.

But what they feel most of all is that it’s vital that local communities and local people have their voice. 67% think that community voices should be heard properly even if it means delays. 58% think the balance of power favours developers too much over local communities and only 6% think it favours local communities – and crucially, 67% say that they would personally be either very of fairly interested in becoming more involved themselves. To a certain extent we have to take this with a punch of salt but nevertheless it is encouraging. People are saying they actually want to be involved in this debate.

What do I think a good debate would look like? I gather than the Infrastructure Commission has been talking about doing deliberative work. I think you almost need to go beyond that: some kind of co-creation. Because what happens has to really enable people to be part of that debate. If we remember how anti-elite people are how anti-jargon and how little interest they show in this vested interest that they are hearing around them, that’s quite a tricky process to really take people with you. Any process has to have reach; it has to get beyond the usual suspects in any community to the people that wouldn’t otherwise come forward. It needs to enable people to see the joined up nature of proper programme and to see beyond their own personal interest and crucially any debate has to really be seen to make a difference or we will simply fuel the lack of trust that people feel and fuel this kind of post-truth democracy.

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