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An integrated transport policy may be re-emerging

Antony Oliver

You don’t have to live in the South East of England to be aware of the increasingly hysterical debate over a clutch of major transport infrastructure projects proposed for the UK.

And no matter what side of the various arguments you might be, civil engineers should surely recognise this as a magical moment in which engineering aspiration and our contribution to the nation’s economy is actually being discussed at the highest levels.

Clearly the decision earlier this month by transport secretary Justine Greening to press ahead with planning for High Speed 2 (HS2) is at the head of the discussion queue. Yet with promises of a phase 2 route to Leeds and Manchester promised after the initial leg to Birmingham, the debate is now nationwide.

In fact, the mooted promise of an eventual HS2 link further north means that passionate discussion has now even reached Scotland (although, this fact may have been over-shadowed by independence issues).

But to see this project unexpectedly joined by high level political support for a new UK airport hub to replace an over-burdened Heathrow is nothing short of astounding.

Here we have the ultimate in aspiration, free thinking - a “blank sheet of paper” infrastructure project capable of solving not just today’s problems but that actually builds in the capability to reshape the challenges of the future.

“I remain convinced that radical schemes such as HS2 and the Thames Hub are vital to the nation’s future”

Both are projects born out of a recognition that the nation’s economic future is dependent on thinking and acting differently and radically. Add to these our existing commitments to Thameslink, Crossrail, the Northern Line Extension in Battersea, motorway widening promises and rail electrification upgrades and one could almost be forgiven for thinking that we are witnessing the re-emergence of integrated transport thinking - a renaissance in planning policy linking railways, airports, roads, port facilities, urban development and communications technology.
Is this a new paradigm in which the Treasury and government departments recognise the long-term value not only of investment in individual projects, but also of investment in major programmes linking projects together.
Perhaps. Certainly, that is the message that government would, I am sure, like us all to believe.

Alternatively, we could simply be witnessing a cynical exercise in stakeholder management designed to convince the electorate that, despite some fairly substantial evidence to the contrary, the government’s public spending austerity programme is delivering the growth necessary to underpin these projects.

Let’s hope not. Because regardless of the spin, I remain convinced that radical schemes such as HS2, the Thames Hub and extensions to the London Underground are vital to the nation’s future.

Yes, they are controversial, but as a profession it is our duty to not only design them properly but also to take them out of the realms of fantasy and see them delivered.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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