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Why is the UK crap at infrastructure?

By Frank McKenna

By Frank McKenna

In his latest blog, Frank McKenna asks why the UK is crap at delivering major infrastructure projects.

The United Kingdom is garbage at delivering major infrastructure and regeneration projects. Whether it be our failure to enable the country to be more energy self sufficient with the building of new nuclear power stations or the genuine exploration of the merits of fracking; better protection against flooding with the creation of new reservoirs; bigger trading ports; a third runway at Heathrow; or just building enough houses for our people to live in – the NIMBY brigade slow or prevent progress.

Our motorways are crumbling, our digital connectivity is, to put it kindly, haphazard, and our train services are archaic.

Local interests get in the way of national growth ambition – and so even when we know a project is essential for the place making, economic, and environmental benefit of the country, the protests of vocal, usually well-funded, middle-class pressure groups delays those schemes to the point where the costs spiral, making them economically non-viable.

So it was perhaps no surprise that a leaked government document last week from the Department of Transport suggested that the long talked about HS2 rail plan would be significantly scaled back or cancelled altogether.

A project that would take a significant number of lorries off the road and onto rail, resulting in a better environmental outcome, create north of 20,000 jobs, knit the country together, improving connectivity between our major core cities and increasing our dire productivity rate, and eventually offering better links between towns and cities in the north, is under scrutiny because of – you guessed it – the cost.

Alarmists are quoting £200 billion to complete this essential transport investment. Even if we accept this fantastical number, it would still be a worthwhile project as, spread over the period of the 150 years the new service would last – works out at just £1.5 billion a year – or, in governmental spending terms – a round of drinks.

Of course, its not about money really. And anyway, the project is only as expensive because of the huge amount of cash that we have to spend in protecting the NIMBYs. In Spain, it is estimated that a HS2 would cost less than half of what we will pay in the UK.

But, really, it’s about the problem that is as old as our Victorian train tracks. If this was an investment for London transport, nobody would be batting an eyelid in the corridors of power in Whitehall.

HS2 cannot be cancelled. It has already been built. But, only as far as Birmingham. Further disadvantaging the north by failing to take the track further would be a total betrayal of the ‘Red Wall’ – and also an indication that the current government doesn’t have any idea of what a growth plan looks like.      

HS2 needs to be built. We need Northern Power Rail too. And those nuclear power stations and digital connectivity improvements.

Can we afford to deliver these much-needed infrastructure projects? We can’t afford not to. Without this type of investment UK PLC will become a museum of creaking industries, low productivity –  a country that will be in managed decline.

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