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When I’m not writing this column, I’m overseeing my own once-in-a-generation infrastructure project. With dust levels rising and bank balances falling, I am determined to remove bedroom bottlenecks and improve co-habitation comfort, whilst maintaining the budgetary discipline my mortgage lender demands.
That’s why I’m pioneering a world first for saving on stairs (SoS). The value of my additional home capacity will not be compromised by relying on alternative connectivity features in the short term, such as ladders or perhaps a rope. Thanks to the UK Government and its work on HS2 for inspiring this innovative solution.
The £100 billion high-speed rail line becomes the epitome of the curse of British infrastructure. Depending on who you ask, it’s either too big, too expensive, or the wrong thing to do to begin with. Even its supporters (myself included) are desperate. After axing the eastern route to Leeds, the government is considering scrapping the western route to Manchester and terminating the route outside central London at Old Oak Common. What benefits would remain? “Virtually none,” concludes one person involved in its protracted creation.
The wider benefits of HS2 were never properly understood or communicated. Faster trains mean shorter journey times. But a high-speed line must also free up capacity elsewhere for more local services or freight, and serve as a backbone for other improvements. With political will waning, overburdened capital may not have easy access to HS2 and the part of the country that should benefit most (the north) risks being completely excluded. Yet the 2020 Oakervee review, which formed the basis for the approval of HS2, stated that “the full network is required to realize the benefits of the investment”.
Indecision is both a symptom and a cause of the problems with Britain’s infrastructure: everything costs so much to build. My colleague John Burn-Murdoch has looked at how sclerotic planning and nimbyist tendencies are driving up costs, with rail projects, lanes or highway bridges far more expensive than in most other countries. Another problem is Britain’s peculiar inability to write down, debate and stick to a long-term plan for its infrastructure.
Dithering is inherently expensive on construction projects. Bills run up while everyone deliberates. Contracts must be renewed. An industry rule of thumb is that one-fifth of a project’s capital cost goes toward design and development. Any efficiency or change carries the risk of writing off previous work and adding to design costs, especially for something as complex as HS2.
Political thumb-sucking and an unwillingness to commit to stable spending in the medium to long term are particular problems. Britain is lagging behind in rail electrification, with costs rising up to three times the original budget due to a lack of consistency, argues Sam Dumitriu of campaign group Britain Remade. Germany has been plodding along an electrifying 200km of lines per year; Britain has gone from almost 600km in some years to zero in others.
Lamenting start-stop investment is not new: a 2010 Treasury report on “excessively high” infrastructure costs found that “the lack of visible and continuous pipeline of forward work flow” was one of the biggest problems facing had to be addressed.
One knock-on effect concerns skills, both in industry and government. Despite efforts such as the Major Projects Leadership Academy, the civil service’s ability to oversee major infrastructure developments remains questionable, meaning greater reliance on consultancies. Companies have little incentive to invest in training and career development without a job pipeline. Specialist skills, such as those taught at the welding academy set up for nuclear construction at Hinkley Point C, diminish when there is no more work to continue. Know-how is not transferred from one (preferably standardized) project to another.
A patchy pipeline contributes to a fragmented UK sector, something again highlighted in the 2010 report. Companies don’t build greater internal capabilities or invest in cutting-edge technology if their biggest customer is fickle. Britain’s largest construction group, Balfour Beatty, with a turnover of around £9 billion last year, is dwarfed by French or Spanish contractors such as Vinci with €62 billion in revenues or ACS with €34 billion.
According to Noble Francis of the Construction Products Association, major UK contractors employ just 14 percent of the construction workforce, while 86 percent are small and medium-sized enterprises. “The volatility of demand for infrastructure means that contractors’ business models are not based on the most efficient ways of working, but on dealing with volatility, which means outsourcing costs, activities and risks to smaller specialist contractors,” says he.
If I ever embark on another personal infrastructure project, I will have learned from the current experience. It is not self-evident that Britain can say the same thing for decades.