The rationale behind Britain’s biggest infrastructure project – High Speed 2 – has been frequently challenged by NCE’s readers. Here HS2 chairman Sir David Higgins puts his case for the mega-project.
The prime minister has said it. The chancellor has said it. The governor of the Bank of England has said it.
This country not only has a productivity problem but a productivity problem that is at least partly due to the unbalanced nature of our economy, which has led to real pressure on housing, commercial property and transport in London, side by side with under-development further North.
That paradox is the result of our collective failure to think strategically about our infrastructure needs as a country, and then implement the plans we need to address those needs.
Time and again, whether it has been Crossrail or Thameslink, we have known what needs to be done – and then dithered.
The result has been not just an infrastructure that has failed to keep up with the country’s fundamental needs, but also has added real cost as a direct result of our indecision.
Our collective failure to follow through on what we know needs to be done has cost this country dear in all senses. Talk has been anything but cheap.
And it is obvious what needs to be done, certainly on the railways. It is obvious after a doubling of passenger numbers in the past 20 years that we have a significant capacity issue, particularly, but not exclusively, on the West Coast Main Line. Anyone who has travelled on it recently and seen people having to stand for hours knows that.
And it is equally obvious – at least to anyone who lived through the last attempt – that upgrading the current track is not the answer.
Not only would it provide poor value for money, but it would also cause consistent and significant disruption lasting for many years.
The impact of that on the country’s productivity hardly bears thinking about. With demand continuing to grow at around 5% per year and showing no sign of abating; incremental improvements, while very welcome and necessary, will not deliver the step change in capacity the country desperately needs – and has needed for some time.
And that need for extra capacity is also true in the East, but the more pressing issue is connectivity: the quality, reliability and duration of the journeys not just between our major cities and London, but also between them.
Take one example: Leeds to Birmingham, two cities vital to our productivity as a nation. At present, on a good day, the journey takes two hours. That means four hours minimum taken out of the working day travelling. Add in extra time in case the train is delayed or disrupted and, more realistically, you are talking about five hours – that doesn’t leave much time to do business.
With HS2 the journey time will be reduced in half to under an hour – and it will be reliable to the minute. So five hours becomes two – three extra hours for business.
Why does that matter? Because in a knowledge economy what matters is face time.
Wherever you look in the world we are travelling more, despite Facebook, despite Twitter, despite video conferencing.
Why? Because when you are dealing with ideas – whether in the creative industries, high tech design, the law or finance – nothing beats the spontaneity of the moment. Anything that gets in the way of that face-time is a dampener on that creative spark – a drag on productivity.
The map of Britain’s commuting lines says it all. London is a blur. Thick dark lines from all points of the compass converging on a big black blob in the centre.
If you want an explanation for the transport congestion, house prices that young people cannot afford and the highest commercial property prices in the world, that image says it all. It is unsustainable. Mitigation will only produce short-term, ultimately self-defeating relief, adding to demand rather than reducing it.
But what is equally striking is the contrast with the rest of the country.
Two things are striking. The blobs around Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle and the rest are much, much smaller. Secondly, in between there are vast acres of white.
Again, take one example: Manchester and Leeds. Two conurbations of 3M people 64km apart, but with less than 0.5% commuting in each direction. No economies of scale. No critical mass of talent. No pooling of resources and skills.
In a knowledge economy that isn’t just a series of missed opportunities. It is also highly inefficient and unproductive.
So if, as a country, we want to tackle our productivity problem we have to tackle both our capacity problem, which is increasingly obvious, and our connectivity problem which is even more serious because we have just come to accept delay, unreliability and poorly designed infrastructure as just the way it is.
That fatalism is the British disease.
Or at least it was. As we start a new parliament we should recognise that three governments in a row have now recognised the need to re-balance our economy, and to put in place the means to start doing that in the shape of HS2.
And parliament has backed them in doing so: by 452 votes to 41 in the Second Reading vote in April last year.
Of course the parliamentary process is not complete – and I do not want to take anything for granted or to be pre-sumptuous.
Equally, I fully recognise that many issues remain work in progress including how we integrate HS2 into what is now known as HS3 – much improved rail links East/West across the North of England – as well as the rest of the rail and road network.
The answers will not be easy because, of course, there will be different views about priorities and the usual, false, tendency to treat the issues as a zero sum game rather than flip sides of the same coin.
But as we continue to work at those problems there is one point I would like to acknowledge with all the force I can muster. This generation of politicians, and their leaders on all sides, have been clearer about the fundamental productivity problem we face as a country and what is necessary in terms of infrastructure to address it than any since the motorways were built in the 1960s, and, before that, the Victorians.
As engineers we should give them credit for that insight and the courage they have shown in following it through. Of course there will always be room for debate and the wish to start with a blank page, to stop the world until we have got the perfect answer.
But that is wishful thinking – expensive wishful thinking.
Crossrail will bring huge benefits to London when it opens in two years’ time, but it should have done so a long time ago.
It was first conceived of in 1880, but shelved because somebody thought there was a better solution, not once but several times.
When it opens it will be just 140 years late and many, many, many millions of pounds more expensive. Missed opportunities in infrastructure don’t just cost a lot of money. They also make this country, collectively and individually, less productive and, therefore, poorer. They rob people of the opportunity to realise their full potential living their lives where they and their families want to.
As engineers we pride ourselves on our ability to solve complex problems. While others talk, we do. The productivity puzzle in this country is a complex problem. HS2 can help solve it. With the backing of parliament we are going to do it.
- David Higgins is chairman of HS2 Ltd