Levelling up: the risks of pork barrel spending

By Sydney Rennich

Perhaps pork-barrel spending is not as American as I thought. As I got on a plane from Atlanta to London two months ago, I braced myself for change. A new country meant new people, places, and politics. However, it seems that there was something other than my luggage that crossed the pond with me. Since the Conservative success in historically Labour regions in December’s General Election, there has been a stream of reports suggesting that these areas will be “rewarded” with shiny new infrastructure and other government splurges. 

That sounds very familiar to me. Pork barrel spending is a common US term referring to the allocation of national tax money to regionally specific projects. This concentration of funding often comes about as a way to appease elected regional representatives and has often, throughout history, coincided with scandal, waste, and abuse of power. While the spending occasionally provides boosts to the specific area, its history is littered with white elephant projects and it creates a society where the majority of people are paying for projects that they will never reap the benefits of. In these cases, national spending is not viewed in terms of effectiveness, but instead as a pawn in the game of appealing to regional representatives, pushing individual agendas whilst negatively affecting society as a whole. Funds that may have remained happily in the pockets of the taxpayer are instead being used to repay favours and win support. 

With low accountability and substantial waste, this kind of cash usually creates numerous problems for the governments dishing it out. Given the Prime Minister’s fondness for bridges, he ought to consider the famous cautionary tale of the failed Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere”. In 2005, a $320 million dollar Alaskan bridge connecting the small city of Ketchikan to a nearby island with a population of 50, became the poster child of federal waste through pork-barrel policy. After a public outcry, the bridge money was rejected and given toward hurricane relief in New Orleans, but the project acted as a spotlight for many other federal waste offenders. In fact, since 1991, $359.8 billion dollars were attributed to pork-barrel earmarks in the United States.

Perhaps this cautionary tale could act as a warning for the UK as claims of policies being targeted at “levelling up” less wealthy regions of the country strike an eerily similar tune to US pork barrel policy. Pouring large amounts of taxpayer money into anything is rarely sensible, with the public far better at allocating their own resources than central planners appointed by the government. But money targeted at regions for the sake of their regionality can lead to especially harmful and wasteful policy. Levelling up is a nice slogan, but could be revealed as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. 

Indeed, a report published last week by the Resolution Foundation found that waste alone will account for one tenth of the earmarked “level up” spending due to massive inefficiencies. What the Resolution Foundation’s report gets wrong, however, is assuming that more “investment” (i.e spending more taxpayer money) is generally speaking an entirely good thing. It comes too close to assuming government spending is automatically investment, when in actual fact government projects often put far more money in than they ever get out. Take the much-maligned HS2 project, which, as Harry Fone detailed on this site, will cost taxpayers at least £5 for every £4 of value it creates. 

HS2 is an invaluable lesson not only in terms of demonstrating how flaky claims of powerful state “investment” are but also for showing some of the realities of pork barrel politics. Other than the project’s own architects and disciples, HS2’s support has come almost entirely from the two parts of the country that will actually benefit - London and Birmingham . Like so many government projects, it is set to overspend and undeliver. As the government contemplates further “levelling up” projects, it should remember that pork barrel politics only tends to benefit small sets of people, at massive cost. 

In fact, last year’s TaxPayers’ Alliance investigation into government project overruns showed that just 10 projects have overrun by a total of over 30 years and nearly £20 billion. The lack of clear responsibility for delivery of these projects tends to mean minimal accountability and unsurprisingly bad results. When it comes to government projects, the promises very rarely match the reality.

The UK would be wise to let the US keep their pork all to themselves, and strive toward efficiently and effectively using taxpayer cash based on cost-effectiveness, not on projects designed only to fulfil political promises. For the good of the country, politicians must resist the temptation to be profligate with public money. The power of the American tea-party movement in the early 2010s shows the potential for a backlash against excessive and unnecessary spending. British governments must avoid making the same mistake.  

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