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Political action is shaking up UK infrastructure

Last week was a big week for the UK’s high speed rail ambitions but the way in which High Speed 2 (HS2) got its boost may set the tone for how other politically difficult infrastructure decisions will be made.

Press invites to Manchester Town Hall were sent giving more than a hint at what was about to be said by the new, and widely respected, boss of HS2 Ltd.

The scene was set and the stage was ready and on came chairman David Higgins to reveal his proposal for HS2 Plus – an acceleration plan that would see the high speed line yield benefits north of Birmingham earlier than planned.

The significance of the announcement politically could not be underestimated, as Higgins attempted to silence critics of the scheme.

Oft cited about the £42.6bn London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds line is that it is a colossally expensive vanity project that offers negligible – and undesirable – journey time savings. Higgins’ message was clear. Phase 1 from London to Birmingham HS2 will solve the impending capacity problem on the West Coast Main Line – which he and others say will be completely full by the mid-2020s, not only a problem for passengers but also freight.

Former transport minister Steven Norris says there has been a “genuine revolution” within the Treasury, led by Osborne, which recognises the value of infrastructure and the economic benefi ts of investing in it 

Phase 2, beyond Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds would create connectivity for many UK cities that would be beneficial to the national and local economy.

So the political message is clear – and it is interesting that the case was being made by Higgins and not a politician, although his recommendations have been subsequently embraced and endorsed by senior politicians including the transport secretary and chancellor.

But just a few weeks ago, anyone listening to what the transport secretary had to say to MPs would have thought that there was much less willingness to reconsider the scheme’s pertinent points. Government will not rush construction of High Speed 2 (HS2) and the case for starting work from the North earlier was not as clear cut as some people believe, Patrick McLoughlin said.

He warned against focusing too much on speeding up delivery, stressing that no final decision had yet been made on the route selection. “I know there is a lot of pressure, from a number of people, to say can we can build the line from the north to the south,” he said. “The one problem is that I’ve not yet confirmed the route for Birmingham to Manchester or Birmingham to Leeds. That was out to consultation [until 31 January].

“Once the route is confirmed we have to do the environmental statements. That is no short programme.

“I don’t think it’s quite as easy as some people have alluded to,” he said, adding that such a strategy also fails to acknowledge that the main capacity issue is into the London terminal at Euston.

Perhaps not for the first time, a senior politician appeared keen to leave the difficult rhetoric to an unelected colleague.

Former transport minister Steven Norris says there has been a “genuine revolution” within the Treasury, led by Osborne, which recognises the value of infrastructure and the economic benefits of investing in it.

The difficult [NPSs] haven’t been done because no one knows how to write them to get them through [parliament]

Despite this, there are some difficult questions in strategic planning that remain unanswered, he says. National Policy Statements (NPSs) are a prime example, he says. You could be forgiven for forgetting they exist.

They were originally conceived out of Labour’s Planning Act 2008 as strategic documents that would enable big planning decisions to be made by the now abolished Infrastructure Planning Commission – essentially attempting to take out the politics out of the process of planning for nationally significant infrastructure as far as is possible in a democracy.

Instead, the coalition government reintroduced ministerial decision making at the end of the planning process and the NPSs in reality are somewhat lightweight. In fact, only the easy NPSs have even begun to be tackled, according to Norris, like ports and rail and roads. The more complex – like airports – have failed to emerge.

“The difficult [NPSs] haven’t been done because no one knows how to write them to get them through [parliament],” says Norris. The job again, has apparently been delegated to a less politically immersed candidate. “[Sir Howard] Davies is essentially producing the NPS for airports,” he adds, alluding to the comprehensive review of the airport capacity needs in the South East over the coming decades.

Labour, remember, was the party that first introduced the idea of the Infrastructure Planning Commission

This was a particularly thorny issue for the Conservatives given it was so adamantly opposed to expansion at Heathrow airport via a third runway in its early years in the current coalition government. The Tories’ second transport secretary of this parliament, Justine Greening, as MP for Putney had upheld her constituents’ opposition to the third runway well, but the tide was beginning to turn as the party began to see some benefits to the scheme.

In addition, peoples’ favourite and Conservative London mayor Boris Johnson had his own plan for a Thames Estuary airport that directly competed with Heathrow. Appointing Davies, along with a promise to make no firm decision before next parliament, the Tories could find a way to potentially dampen down its anti-Heathrow stance.

Particularly useful in that so far Davies has backed three potential schemes for expansion and two of them feature a new runway at Heathrow.

But it’s not just the Conservatives who have seen the potential in de-politicising infrastructure – Labour, remember, was the party that first introduced the idea of the Infrastructure Planning Commission that put a greater emphasis on planning professionals applying a transparent and formal process to assessing major schemes.

This devolving of decision making appears to be the shape of things to come; whether that’s good for the actual delivery of schemes remains to be seen. 

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