Frequently asked infrastructure question No 1: “High Speed 2 (HS2)- will it ever get built?”
Any regular reader of NCE will probably have guessed by now that I am a big fan of major civil engineering projects - the more aspirational they are the better. Hence, my answer to the question is, of course, a resounding “yes - it has to be”.
But listening to prime minster David Cameron last week passionately describe HS2 as “a project that will transform connections in our country just as motorways did in the 1960s”, it is clear that I’m not alone. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking that, in his mind at least, it is a done deal.
Particularly, if you then also read the latest rail industry Command Paper. In this the government pretty much makes clear that, notwithstanding the need to go through a few planning hurdles, HS2 is absolutely central to plans to modernise the UK’s rail network.
This week’s special report on HS2 will no doubt prompt much discussion and debate among the profession, particularly those likely to either benefit - or not benefit - from the potential £33bn public investment.
And let’s not forget that it is relatively easy for a politician to support a project that has £750M of development funding agreed to 2015 and won’t require any more before 2017.
However, this week’s appointment of major projects’ veteran Douglas Oakervee as HS2’s new chairman must change the paradigm.
His track record of turning the costly and unsupportable 2005 Crossrail project into reality make him very much the man to help the UK, as Cameron put it, “build for the future with as much confidence and ambition as the Victorians once did”.
Yet, it goes beyond the sheer civil engineering joy of digging holes and putting concrete in them. As was pointed out to me recently by an aficionado of heritage engineering, not everything that Victorian engineers thought of actually got built.
Having a robust business case was as important in the days of Brunel and Stephenson as it is today. Certainly the Victorians had the advantage of working through a period of unprecedented social and economic change with a blank canvas and supply of money to invest in major engineering projects.
But clearly much of that growth was driven directly by the investment in infrastructure to allow greater industrialisation and production efficiency across all industry.
Clearly, such a self-sustaining virtuous circle of investment and growth can, with the right nurturing, be established again.
Hence my absolute passion for modern mega projects. As we see across the pages of NCE this week, projects such as HS2, Crossrail, Fehmarnbelt and Qatar’s mega reservoirs are fantastic business and career opportunities for UK civil engineers.
But they are also the engines of growth that will remain vital to underpin national economies. We need more of them.
- Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor