The party conference season can be a mixed bag for those promoting and lobbying for government investment or backing for infrastructure.
It is always a place to be seen – as evidenced by the sizeable presence of project promoters such as Crossrail 2, Heathrow and Tideway at the most recent Conservative Party conference. But you never quite know what kind of support you are going to get from the various speakers.
This year the project in the firing line has without doubt been High Speed 2 (HS2). Even before the conference began Boris Johnson weighed in with his interview in the Sunday Times, calling for it to be scrapped. His view was then quickly echoed by fellow backbenchers
Andrea Leadsom and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Why MPs’ views matter
Rees-Mogg, talking exclusively to New Civil Engineer this month, had most to say on the matter. But why do his views, or the views of any other backbenchers, matter?
Well, right now, they do not. But given that, at time of writing, most high street bookmakers are giving short odds on a 2019 General Election, the views of these people are more likely than not going be taken more seriously. Because the bookies are also pretty certain that we are in for another Conservative-led coalition of sorts, with the most likely leader one of the aforementioned trio.
Of course, their views now may not remain their views if they are elected party leader. Johnson, for one, has made a career out of changing his mind.
High speed 2 hs2 1
And all three are clearly electioneering; they know that HS2 is not a vote-winner, either with the general public at large or, more importantly to them, with the constituency MPs that will elect the next party leader, whenever that is. Pledging to give £50bn – or more – back to local Conservative strongholds to build local transport schemes is certainly going to land more leadership votes than backing HS2.
It is probably not the best way of deciding infrastructure priorities. Many an infrastructure enthusiast would say it would be lovely if we lived in a world where what the National Infrastructure Commission says goes. But we live in a democracy and, flawed though it may be, it is the system we have and we have to work with it.
So, what’s the response? The obvious one is to press the case for carrying on as normal, citing the tremendous job creation opportunities presented by HS2 (true), the immense improvement in capacity it will create down the north-south rail spine (true), and from that build the argument about boosting national productivity (still debatable).
But is that the right response? The recently-announced delay to Crossrail should force some fundamental thinking about HS2. Namely, is this project driven by time or cost as the primary success factor?
Because, project delivery experts will tell you, no one project can have those two masters as their primary goal and succeed – and when push comes to shove one must always give way to the other. Look at Crossrail.
On HS2 so far, and with opening dates already boldly declared, time has been the driver. But why, really? Ask anyone on the street when they think HS2 is set to open and what will they tell you? Ask yourself even: when is the first phase to Birmingham slated to open? Is it 2023? 2026? And what about the full route? Is it 2030? 2033?
Now, with civils costs coming in way over budget, Euston station’s destiny still unresolved and much debate about connectivity to the phase 2 stations persisting, would a short pause not permit some valuable thinking time to really consider what matters most: is it time, or is it money?
The project feels like it needs some certainty. Getting a proper grip on the money feels right. A pause may be coming anyway, so why not be proactive and take the lead?
- Mark Hansford is New Civil Engineer’s editor