25th August, 2023
The Telegraph, by Matt Oliver

Britain is spending up to eight times more on rail and road projects than its European neighbours because of mountains of red tape and nimby opposition, campaigners have claimed.

A study by Britain Remade found that compared to seven other rich countries, the UK was spending twice as much on building new railways and a tenth more per mile of road on average.

The research examined more than 200 different projects including many Denmark, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Sweden, and Norway.

In the case of the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail link, it found that Britain was spending 8.5 times more than comparable European projects.

Sam Dumitriu, head of policy at Britain Remade, said: “When Britain builds infrastructure, whether that is railways, underground systems, trams or roads, we tend to pay more – a lot more in some cases – than other countries in Europe.

“Why is that? One reason is that we give too much power to people objecting to projects and end up in a situation where schemes are gold-plated.

“Another is that we don’t use ‘off the shelf’ designs as much as we should do. And the planning system requires contractors to do huge amounts of work.”

In one example, Britain Remade examined how France has been able to build 21 new tram systems in the past quarter of a century while Britain has only completed a handful.

On a cost basis, tramways in France ranged from as little as £29m per mile in Besançon in 2014 to as much as £60m per mile in Orleans in 2012.

Costs in Besançon were kept to a minimum by use of repeatable designs throughout and a lack of adaptations to the tramcars.

By comparison, the cheapest in Britain was the second phase of Nottingham’s tramway, at £66m per mile, rising to £252m per mile for Manchester’s second city crossing.

Meanwhile, Britain Remade praised London’s Elizabeth Line as a “roaring success” in terms of passenger numbers but noted that an £18.2bn inflation-adjusted price tag made it “one of the world’s most expensive metro systems”, at £1.4bn per mile.

A recent extension of the Northern Line to Battersea was less expensive but still cost  £1.5bn or £743m per mile. 

In stark contrast, an 81-mile subway network in Madrid cost just £68m per mile. 

The first phase of HS2 will also cost at least £53.1bn, or £396m per mile, compared to a high speed rail link between Paris and Strasbourg that cost £31m per mile, adjusted for inflation. 

The UK has also paid far more for some road projects. 

Mr Dumitriu pointed to the Lower Thames Crossing scheme, which aims to improve transport between Essex and Kent by tunnelling under the Thames and is set to cost £9bn, or £700m per mile.

Despite five consultations, and more than £250m spent on a 63,000-page planning application, the scheme is yet to be granted consent. 

“In effect, a quarter of a billion spent so one branch of government can ask another branch of government for permission with no guarantee of success,” Mr Dumitriu wrote in a research note published online.

Norway’s Laerdal tunnel, the longest road tunnel in the world, only cost £140m, adjusted for inflation, or £9m per mile, he added.

The A14 from Cambridge to Huntingdon also cost £1.6bn for 21 miles, whereas Norway’s Ryfast and Eiganes tunnels, which were 14 miles long but burrowed 290 metres under the sea through solid rock, cost just £700m.

Mr Dumitriu said Britain could bring infrastructure costs down by using more standardised designs and reducing the use of expensive features such as tunnels, viaducts and bridges as much as possible. 

A “stop-start” approach to major projects also made it harder for the UK to retain the skills and experience of people who had worked on big projects, he added.