UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set out his government's plans for nationwide economic recovery, saying it will "build build build" to deal with the damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a speech in the West Midlands in central England, he announced a multi-billion pound "new deal" for infrastructure projects to stimulate the UK economy. There will not however be new money for the scheme, but capital investment funding is to be made available earlier than planned.
In a news release published before the speech, the government promised a massive building programme to put jobs and infrastructure at the centre of economic growth strategy.
"We will build build build. Build back better, build back greener, build back faster and to do that at the pace that this moment requires," Johnson said.
He compared the plan to President Roosevelt's "New Deal" in the United States in the 1930s. "That is how it is meant to sound and to be, because that is what the times demand," he added.
However, at the news conference immediately following the prime minister's speech, there was some scepticism that the UK plan is remotely on the same scale as the legendary US programme to combat the Great Depression.
The UK economy has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Opposition figures and environmental campaigners have been quick to slam Johnson's plan as inadequate.
Capital spending brought forward
The UK government is to bring forward £5 billion (€5.47 billion) of funding already allocated for capital investment projects. The details include:
- £1.5 billion (€1.64 billion) this year in hospital spending
- £100 million (€109.4 million) in 2020 for 29 road projects
- Over £1 billion (€1.09 billion) for a 50-project 10-year school rebuilding programme
- £560 million (€612.8 million) for repairs and upgrades to schools and further education colleges
- Tens of millions to upgrade courts and prisons
- £900 million (€984.9 million) for local growth projects in England and £96 million for town centres
- Funding brought forward to accelerate infrastructure projects in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
- 75,000 acres of trees to be planted every year by 2025; £40 million (€43.7 million) for conservation projects creating 3,000 jobs
Addressing the coronavirus pandemic, the prime minister said the UK had been able to avert a "far worse disaster" because the country had come together. Now he said he wanted to address long-standing imbalances.
Too many parts of the country outside London had been "left behind, neglected and unloved", Johnson said.
Jobs and reforms promised
On education, the prime minister said he wanted to end current injustice, which was "such a waste of human talent".
A "Project Speed" infrastructure delivery task force led by UK Chancellor (finance minister) Rishi Sunak would "scythe through red tape", he added.
Many employees laid off amid the pandemic have been protected under the government's furlough scheme, but it is not due to be extended beyond this summer.
The prime minister promised the new plan would create "thousands of high-paid, high-skilled jobs", acknowledging that many jobs lost since January would not come back.
He said it was time now not just for a new deal but "a fair deal for British people", adding that it was a good time to invest as the cost of borrowing allowed it.
"I am not a communist," Johnson said, but a fervent proponent of free enterprise -- anticipating perhaps criticism of the big-spending plan.
Pressed on how the programme would be funded, the prime minister did not commit to fulfilling a previous promise not to raise taxes.
The prime minister's speech came as revised figures from the Office for National Statistics for the first three months of the year show the economy shrank by 2.2%, more than previously thought and the largest drop in 41 years.
As the pandemic then took hold, output plunged by more than 20% in April.
Opposition Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the government's plan was inadequate to deal with what he called the biggest economic crisis for a generation, which the recovery needed to match. He has called for a summer budget focusing on "jobs, jobs, jobs".
"What's been announced amounts to less than £100 (€109.90) per person, and it's the re-announcement of many manifesto pledges and commitments, so it's not enough," Starmer said in a video posted on Twitter.
"These are tiny amounts of money. The contrast with Roosevelt, frankly, is embarrassing," Greenpeace campaigner Paul Morozzo told Euronews. "It's not new money, it's just bringing forward spending. What we need is much, much more ambition and much more vision... We need to try and deal with both these problems at the same time, both the economic crisis and the climate crisis."
Watch Boris Johnson's speech back in the video player below.