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Comment | Hinkley, Heathrow & HS2: Good week, bad week?

Mark Hansford

A green light for Hinkley, a mild unravelling at High Speed 2 and baffling proposals from Heathrow makes for an interesting week in infrastructure.

Hinkley first. The government’s decision to give the go-ahead to EdF’s plans to build a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point C was immediately leapt on by industry and industry bodies as “very good news indeed”.

This, despite evidence that for the equivalent anticipated annual power output of Hinkley Point C, over 23GW of solar PV capacity could be installed at less than half the National Audit Office’s projected £29.7bn lifetime cost of Hinkley to the public (equally favourable stats for other renewables are available).

And this, despite increasingly reasoned arguments that smaller plants, whether that’s small modular reactors or others, are what’s actually needed as we fast move into a world where more and more of generating energy in our homes, storing it, and even putting it back into the grid rather than just taking it out.

And this, despite the overwhelmingly obvious point that the design to be used is currently and very demonstrably unbuildable. Flammanville remains a constant reminder of this.

Hinkley c pre construction works may 2015

Hinkley C pre-construction works were underway in 2015

Source: EDF Energy

Throw in the fact that the French trade unions don’t like it, that EdF’s finances are not the healthiest, and that the French nuclear regulator is examining flaws in steel used at Flammanville and it’s all a bit murky.

But no matter, a green light is a green light and it is very good news for Bouygues, Laing O’Rourke, Costain, Bam Nuttall and others who have been itching to get cracking. The industry did need something to get excited about and maybe this is it.

Because turning to HS2, things really do look to be in a bit of a pickle there. This week began with news that chief executive Simon Kirby is off to Rolls Royce. Losing one top executive would usually be considered unfortunate, but to lose several would surely be considered careless – and that is where HS2 now is.

Kirby’s exit comes hot on the heels of the departure of the project’s spin doctor Ben Ruse and not months after chief engineer Chris Dulake also called it a day.

The obvious conclusion is that they know something we don’t and it may well be that is the case. It’s clear that there are huge issues being dealt with internally: Euston remains a major headache at the southern end; the business case at the northern end has shifted totally to east-west connectivity (which is tricky for a north-south line); and in the middle there is still an odd desire to accelerate the route to Crewe and fudge its route around Sheffield. It all leaves the outsider more and more in the dark about what the project is about.

The Public Accounts Committee certainly counts as one such outsider: its report this week highlighted cost estimates that remain “volatile” and “uncertainty” over how HS2 will work with the rest of the transport system, particularly in the north.

Cutting directly to the chase, it said Parliament and the public are still in the dark about crucial details – not least when the railway will open, how much it is expected to cost and precisely where it will go. Hmm.

Finally, to Heathrow where desperation seems to have taken hold. Cost cutting is the order of the day now, with the airport realising a little late that it’s hugely expensive proposals are totally unpalatable to the airlines who must pay for them. So this week we heard from its new chairman a bizarre idea to deal with the small matter of the 14-lane M25. The new plan seems to be to scrap plans route it under the new runway via a 600m tunnel and re-route it instead around the airport – “or there may even be some form of bridge”. Well thought out then.

We’ll hear more about the government’s views on HS2 and Heathrow in the weeks to come. Right now they look like projects badly in need of some clear thinking. But then, hey, so does Hinkley – and that’s got the nod. So good week or bad week? You decide.

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