04 October, 2023
Daily Telegraph, by Madeline Grant
My father was a civil engineer, so I was raised on the prodigious achievements of the great 19th century industrialists – Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Thomas Telford, designer of the glorious Menai Suspension Bridge. Dad’s great hero was Joseph Bazalgette, the pioneer of the Victorian sewage system. Our forebears were imbued with a civilisational confidence which is completely lacking today. I often wonder what we will bequeath to our descendants. When future generations look on our works, will they be grateful to us, just as we are utterly indebted to our Victorian and Georgian ancestors? Probably not.
Many commentators seem to have swallowed the “known fact” that cancelling Phase 2 of HS2 will represent a “betrayal of the North”. Yet plenty of northern politicians slated the project at the time, arguing for better links between northern cities rather than “all roads leading to Rome”, in the form of a faster journey to London. Northern Powerhouse Rail was planned to link with HS2, so there may yet be questions about viability. However, if Rishi Sunak were to use his flagship conference speech to unveil a host of new northern rail and road projects, with a focus on east-west links, it could mitigate much of the disappointment.
Though I was never a supporter of HS2, the High-Speed Rail saga is much more than a parable of incompetence and financial mismanagement. I fear that precisely the same factors that have made it such a Byzantine undertaking would be true of practically anything we tried to build in its stead.
Britain looks uniquely incapable of delivering major infrastructure projects at, or close to, the projected date, and within budget (or even something vaguely approximating it). The pro-growth campaign group Britain Remade has conducted startling research into large global infrastructure projects and found that high-speed rail lines have been built in France, Italy and Spain at a fraction of the projected cost of HS2. Such insane differentials cannot be explained solely by population density; Japan is as densely populated as the UK, yet they build their railways for an eighth (1/8!) of the average UK price.
A major culprit is the recent explosion of bureaucracy governing these schemes.
The construction head of Ferrovial, asked to explain the costs of high-speed rail in Britain (estimated at £200 million per kilometre, compared with £32 million per kilometre in the rest of Europe), blamed the difficulty of conducting environmental studies and obtaining consents. According to Britain Remade, the planning application for the Lower Thames Crossing cost £267 million and ran to 60,000 pages (and it hasn’t even got the green light yet!) By contrast, the Jubilee Line extension environmental statement in the 1970s ran to fewer than 400 pages. Reducing the volume of documentation to a sane level will be vital. Unless we address this, many more projects will go the way of HS2.
When it comes to housebuilding and other construction projects, onerous environmental rules – such as requirements for multiple bat and newt surveys (kerching!) – ramp up costs and stifle development even after permission has been granted. A legacy EU ruling on “nutrient neutrality” may have prevented as many as 160,000 homes with planning permission from being built. “Nutrient neutrality” requirements to prevent dwellings from adding wastewater run-off sound innocuous, but they add great complexity.
Unless developers can demonstrate that they won’t have any impact at all, they must run this costly gauntlet, even if the impact is expected to be small. Removing this measure from the planning system (which nobody voted to introduce) would have been a relatively modest step – yet Labour mobilised to block it in the House of Lords, and Lisa Nandy, having pledged to back the Government, was reshuffled to the shadow international development brief. Starmer may taunt Sunak over his decision to scrap house-building targets, but Labour appears equally hostile to development, and equally blind to trade-offs.
Meanwhile the missed opportunities are mounting, from the endless wrangling over a third runway at Heathrow to the coalition of eco-protesters and local activists which successfully destroyed all hopes of a UK fracking industry. Or the depressing saga of the Ox-Cam Arc, the abortive plan to transform the area between Oxford, Cambridge and Milton Keynes into an economic powerhouse, projected to add up to 3 per cent to the national GDP.
A carbon-neutral future will largely rest with nuclear power generation. Yet we’ve been unable to construct a single power station since 1995; the last to be built in the UK was signed off by Mrs Thatcher. Grant Shapps recently announced a competition for small modular reactor (SMR) government contracts of up to £20 billion. SMRs could prove a game-changer, yet this nascent industry threatens to be bogged down in precisely the same bureaucratic load that has hampered larger-scale nuclear projects such as Sizewell-C. Given the high stakes involved, there is surely a case for extracting key strategic developments – power stations, reservoirs etc – from the mainstream planning process altogether.
The Victorian industrialists enjoyed a combination of opportunity, technology and verve. The first two are still open to Britain today; the third seems in short supply and we will grow steadily poorer so long as it continues. Britain is fast becoming a sclerotic vetocracy where nothing gets built, and this urgently needs to change.