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HS2: Why can’t Britain ever get the big things right?

As HS2 shows, there is a problem with the UK that means the country cannot deliver the major projects needed to prepare us for the future.

The construction site at the entrance to the HS2 Chiltern tunnel beside the M25 at Denham, Buckinghamshire. -Photo: Chris Gorman/Getty Images

There is a way the UK – or at least its government – would like to see itself: An entrepreneurial, dynamic society at the cutting edge of the modern world. A country in the vanguard for tech and innovation, developing green energy, building a UK version of DARPA (the USA’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), constructing infrastructure fit for the 21st century and solving the challenges of the future, like social care.

Who wouldn’t want a country like that? It all sounds great… until it crashes down to earth the second we try to actually do anything which requires more than about three weeks of planning or foresight.

If you need convincing that the UK has become completely incapable of planning for the future, then look no further than the farce of HS2. The latest word on the ill-fated scheme is that its eastern leg to Leeds may be scrapped.

From beginning to end, the ways in which we are making a mess of this project speak volumes for modern Britain’s wider inability to build anything big – and leave us with little hope for the future in the absence of major cultural change.

What makes everything worse for the country when it comes to major infrastructure and strategic projects like HS2 is that each individual error ends up compounding the others, leaving the UK like a jammed-up clock, where each malfunctioning cog pressures the next in turn still further – until the whole thing explodes.

Perhaps the most obvious problem comes from the inability of UK governments to trust the public with making the real case for major, long-term infrastructure projects. The real case for HS2 is designed to largely benefit the north of England.

At present, the east and west coast main lines have to accommodate both the high-speed long-distance trains that travel from Manchester, Leeds or York to London as well as much slower stopping services, for commuters to northern cities from nearby towns. That mix of slow and fast trains severely limits how many trains can safely be on the line at one time – it is much harder to overtake with trains than it is with a car.

The idea of the new HS2 lines is that they would be dedicated solely to the intercity, super-fast, long-distance trains – freeing up the existing lines to be used more by shorter-distance commuter trains. Some of the benefits of this are, of course, felt by people travelling to and from London – a faster journey time, but also much more capacity for long journeys, avoiding the endless overcrowding we experience in the present day.

But the main benefit would be from freeing up the existing west and east coast lines, which would let operators run much better, more frequent and hopefully more reliable commuter services in the north – making commuting by public transport viable for far more people than at present.

Instead of trying to tell that story, though, HS2 was sold to the public as a project spending tens of billions of pounds (more on this total later) on a project that would cut travel time from northern cities to London – dooming the project to look like it was yet another scheme designed to benefit the capital, and even then only in a marginal way, rather than the regions. What comes next is a familiar tale to anyone who has looked at any major UK public sector project in the nation’s history: we start out with a huge-looking price tag, and then as the scheme gets going it keeps increasing, and increasing, and increasing – making the public think we are completely incompetent at executing projects.

The reality is we are completely incompetent at commissioning projects: departments have to make ‘value for money’ cases to the Treasury, which will often know far less than them about the realities of projects and costs, but will be the arbiter of the decision all the same.

As a result, departments are incentivised to keep their headline costs as small as possible. This means not only minimising contingency spending or making optimistic assessments, but also almost inevitably adding a discount for usually unspecified ‘efficiency’ savings. It seems sensible, but it has predictable, costly consequences.

For HS2, the headline figure started at £40 billion, rose to around £60 billion, is now projected above £80 billion, and will surely rise again. The reason for those increases isn’t just because of accounting – it’s because we make ourselves build in hugely expensive ways. Sometimes this is essential: building a new train line through central London will necessarily involve digging tunnels – but this needn’t be the case in the countryside.

However, because of fierce local opposition to land being used for rail, especially in Conservative heartland constituencies, much of HS2 in rural areas will be built through tunnels, which is far, far costlier than the alternative.

Inevitably, this leads us to observe that our projects are far costlier than comparable projects in other countries, leading to yet more suggestions the project is bad and should be cancelled. These estimates are often dishonest, failing to take account of costs such as preparing the ground for the tracks or tunnelling, which are sometimes accounted separately from the main track project, and sometimes not.

A simple analogy is looking at the habit of comparing a full-price, on-the-day, peak time ticket in the UK with a European ticket price to suggest that represents an average – when what we actually pay is fairly comparable with European rail commuters. As it is with tickets, so it is with the tracks.

The UK’s unholy coalition of NIMBYs and green groups makes everything tougher – as the two might as well have identical views. The UK’s Green Party and campaigners claim to want low-carbon infrastructure to be built – but seem to reject every single actual project in favour of some hypothetical future one.

The main campaign of the UK green movement in the last decade has been opposing a railway line – even more fervently than new runways at Heathrow. Missing the irony here is an essential part of being in the UK’s green movement.

The result of this is that governments become unwilling to bear the political costs of these projects, leading to them being scaled back to the point where the benefits are no longer worth the spend, but the headline figure is at least lower. Or they simply cancel the projects, leaving contractors unwilling to bid and businesses unwilling to believe government promises in the long term.

It’s easy to look at HS2 and see it as a unique case – but when you look at what’s gone wrong with it all together, as above, it is clearly a systemic set of problems, based in unrealistic expectations, short-termism, and a collective failing of nerves that mean the UK cannot get the big things right.

The list of examples is a long and depressing one, and the common factors are always there: optimistic penny-pinching, lack of contingency and general failings in project management: the cost of Crossrail increased by more than £4 billion over its construction – and just three months before the line was due to open, it was suddenly delayed by more than a year… and then a year again thanks to coronavirus. The farce contributed to the shuttering of plans for Crossrail 2 – but not after £115m was spent on it.

The saga of whether and where to build new runways seems just as hapless. And such is the disconnect around UK cost estimates that political parties argue whether renewing the Trident nuclear deterrent will cost £31bn or £205bn. It doesn’t bode well for that particular project.

This isn’t just a problem under Tory governments though: the New Labour-era National Programme for IT for the NHS – designed to save money and modernise its systems – more than doubled in cost to £12.7 billion and never really worked, before being ignobly scrapped.

That said, things do seem particularly unpromising under this administration. As mayor, Boris Johnson managed, somehow, to spend £43m of public money on a garden bridge across the Thames that was never even started.

Even Brexit itself could arguably have been far less painful if anyone in government just knew how to watch the details – like custom checks and the Northern Irish sea border.

Ah, people say, but what about the 2012 Olympics? The UK did a good job there. Well the country certainly enjoyed the Games and they are very fondly remembered, but the costs spiralled and there were various scandals about contracts that cost a fortune and long arguments about what to do with the sites. It took years to work out what to do with the stadium.

Perhaps once people are gliding through the home counties in a comfortable HS2 carriage they will be similarly forgetful about the problems entailed with delivering the scheme in the first place. But they shouldn’t be.

We either need to change our decision-making processes in a huge way, or stick to the small stuff. As it is, we will carry on miserably muddling through, complaining the whole time that we can’t pull off anything better.

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