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French lessons worth paying attention to

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg this week said it was time to get serious on infrastructure investment. He said 40 critical infrastructure projects will be flagged and given “special” status; that overseas investors will be lured in to fund them; and that planning hurdles will be unblocked to accelerate them.

He bemoaned the fact that “we rely on water and wastewater networks from the 19th century”, that “our railways are a throwback to the 1970s” and that “we have some of the most congested roads in Europe”. And he gazed enviously at mainland Europe where “our competitors continue to invest in cutting-edge infrastructure”.

But will Clegg’s priority list, investor wooing and tough words on planning actually deliver?

He might want to take a closer look at France, where there is no priority list, no particular wooing of overseas investors, and no real planning innovations, yet where infrastructure is getting built.

Take Bordeaux, an average French city, not dissimilar in size or aspiration to Leeds, Manchester or Newcastle. Like its English peers, it wants to be linked to the capital with a better high speed rail service. Like other English cities such as Sunderland, or indeed London, it wants to stimulate regeneration by building a signature bridge. Like other English cities like Liverpool it wants to build a new football stadium. And guess what? It’s building all three — at the same time.

Right now, contractor Vinci is midway through construction of a signature lift bridge across the Garonne river, which divides the city. It is startling in its similarity to the on-off New Wear Bridge, or the much debated and seemingly dead-in-the-water Thames Gateway bridge. The €157M (£136M) bridge is being funded almost entirely by the local authorities that will benefit. For France, it’s been a protracted process, with Vinci’s design first proposed back in 2004.

“The process has been extremely long,” grumbles Vinci project director Giles Vanbremeersch.

There have been so many organisations bugging the hell out of us, its going to have taken almost 10 years in the end. I don’t know what it’s like in the UK, these things take even longer perhaps,” he says.

Of course, he’s right. Designs for the £500M Thames Gateway bridge were put out to consultation in 2004 — the same year as Bordeaux’s. Designs for the Wear crossing were put out for public consumption a year later, in 2005.

Yet today, the Pont Bacalan-Bastide is half-built, while designs for the Wear bridge continue to be debated and the Thames Gateway bridge is not even on the drawing board.

Bordeaux’s bridge is conventionally procured, because despite the perceived delays, it worked for a regeneration-led scheme.

But France, and Bordeaux, are not wedded to that. It’s horses for courses, and not far away Vinci is also about to start work on the new Stade Bordeaux Atlantique, which is needed for the 2016 European Football championships.

Vinci is preferred bidder to build and operate the 40,000 seat venue under a 30-year public-private partnership (PPP) contract.

PPP is a popular route for delivering sports stadiums in France.

Vinci has operated the national stadium, the Stade de France in Paris, under a concession contract since 1998; the MMArena stadium in Le Mans since 2011; and will operate the future Nice Stadium to be handed over in 2013.

Marseille City Council has appointed a consortium including Bouygues Construction subsidiaries GFC Construction and Exprimm to carry out a £250M reconstruction of the Stade Velodrome, to be handed over in 2014.

Given Clegg’s desire to lure in overseas investment, it is worth noting that these are French projects being built and financed by French firms.

Clegg last week singled out Wembley Stadium, originally meant to open in 2003 but which did not open until 2007. Thankfully global embarrassment was spared when England’s bid to host the 2006 Fifa World Cup failed.

Clegg said Whitehall was part of the problem. But the bigger problem surely was the failure to pick the right delivery mechanism, and a failure to get UK infrastructure investors involved. Liverpool FC’s doomed attempt to build a new stadium has floundered because the owners were not prepared to put up enough cash — and outside private finance was not sought.

Then there is the big one — high speed rail. Clegg bemoaned the West Coast Main Line upgrade, which was intended to deliver a proper high speed service to cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. It should have cost £2bn and been completed in 2005 — but it cost four times that, didn’t finish until 2008 and didn’t deliver true high speed. It was such a failure in fact, that High Speed 2, at £30bn or more, is now being seriously considered — with public cash the only conceived funding mechanism.

Head back to Bordeaux and it is very different. Construction of the Tours-Bordeaux high speed line is about one year away, with Vinci again lined up (it is pure coincidence, albeit a happy one for Vinci that it is building all three major schemes in the city), this time on a 50-year concession. It is the biggest PPP contract ever signed in France’s rail sector as well as one of the world’s largest infrastructure projects launched over the last decade.

The project is remarkably similar to the first phase of HS2.

It is 302km long, with 38km of connecting line to the conventional rail network. It will take six years to design and build, and will reduce the journey time between Paris and Bordeaux to two hours five minutes.

The difference is that the money is in place. Finance for the Tours-Bordeaux line will come from public and private sources. Of the €7.8bn (£6.8bn) investment needed — including £5.4bn for construction — Vinci and its partners are providing £3.3bn, with a large chunk of it in debt guaranteed by the French government.

The project is the first to benefit from a French government guarantee mechanism put in place under the 2009 French economic stimulus package designed to encourage PPP financing for large priority projects.

The concession finance package also includes subsidies from the French government, local communities and the European Union for a total amount approaching £2.6bn plus a contribution from state owned national track operator RFF of around £1bn. It means the project is green for go, unlike HS2 which is amber at best.

The different French projects have three very different funding mechanisms. But all are working, and working far faster than their English equivalents. If Clegg, or anyone else, wants to really see how to get infrastructure built they could do worse than to pop to Bordeaux: after all, the weather’s nice, the people friendly, the food great and the wine greater. And they could learn something too.

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