PEOPLE in the UK are a contradictory lot when it comes to big public infrastructure projects — they tend to complain that our roads and railways lag behind those of our Continental neighbours. But woe betide anyone suggesting a railway is built where they live.
Or so we tell ourselves. Reality is more nuanced. The high-speed railway line High Speed 2 (HS2), particularly in its Chilterns stretch, goes through some of the finest countryside in England — a landscape with a high density of wealthy and influential people. It has faced serious opposition, especially from those people. And yet it is being built. On the other hand, reviews and court cases have delayed it and added to its costs.
New road-building has almost stopped in the UK, particularly in parts of the south. Some of that reflects the welcome death of the misconception that it is ever possible to build your way out of road congestion. But there are parts of the country where population has boomed since our road network was planned, largely in the 1950s, and infrastructure is clearly inadequate.
Our rail infrastructure now lags well behind France, Germany, Spain, and Benelux, which have an array of high-speed, high-capacity lines. The Chancellor’s announcement of improved rail between the big cities of the north is welcome, but it shows how far we have slipped. We also have fewer miles of motorway than our neighbours, especially considering our high population density.
When large public works do finally get built in the UK, however, they are often genuinely first-rate, setting standards internationally: think Terminal 5 (once it had sorted out its teething problems), the Olympic infrastructure, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Our motorways may be sparse, but they are beautifully engineered, and actually the safest roads on the planet. So why is it so hard to get things built here?
PARTLY, we have a rose-tinted image of what happens “on the Continent”, where things vary from country to country. Few other states can bulldoze infrastructure schemes past local opposition in the way that France does, for example.
Our planning system, however, seems to give a large premium to the voices of those with time, money, and education. They are mainly retired people, comfortably off, and psychologically remote from the world of working people, especially poorer working people.
Perhaps a planning system for big projects that allowed people from a wider area to have a say might result in more things being built on a quicker timescale. Two examples of high-speed rail projects on the Continent might be illustrative.
Germany is more like Britain than France on planning issues. Local opposition drastically trimmed grandiose government plans for the autobahn network in the 1970s and ’80s. With hindsight, those plans, especially for urban roads within cities, are acknowledged by all to have been dehumanised folly. Protests against needless urban motorways, as much as the anti-nuclear movement, made the German Green Party the powerful political force that it remains today.
In that context, the recent clash over high-speed rail in Stuttgart is educative. Plans for a new line would have meant years of disruption in densely populated areas, while much of the €6.5-billion price tag would have fallen on locals.
Public opposition was such that the Greens, who are as staunchly opposed to high-speed rail as they support the leisurely variety, achieved their best ever result in elections to a German state parliament in 2011, and this in a normally conservative region. The Green-led state government immediately called a referendum to scrap the rail project — and, to everyone’s surprise, lost heavily.
The lessons would seem to be that a large minority of the population can make a great deal of noise; it can shape the public agenda, and even lead to historic shifts in political power. It might still, however, remain a minority. The phrase “silent majority” is overused, but these big infrastructure projects might be examples of where a silent majority can often exist.
ANTWERP is another city that faced rebuilding its main railway station, and massive disruption, to accommodate high-speed rail. In the early 2000s, the issue was big enough to propel the Flemish Greens briefly to being the leading party in Belgium. Then it destroyed them, literally: they were so unpopular after mishandling the matter that they closed down and restarted with a new name in 2003.
Today, high-speed trains from Paris to Amsterdam have called at Antwerp’s beautifully rebuilt hub since 2007. The gem of the 1890s continues to be listed among the world’s most beautiful stations. Eight years of disruption have already been forgotten, and no one wants to turn the clock back.
The same might be the case with HS2, and it might one day seem quaint that it ever took much more than an hour to travel from London to Manchester by train. If history is any guide, its track alignment will still be used in the 23rd century: the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, opened when William IV had yet to be crowned, is still in regular use today.
Cost-benefit analyses rarely operate on such long timescales, so they tend to understate the benefits of projects. We need to get vital pieces of infrastructure from conception to implementation more quickly, and with less money wasted in endless court cases and reviews.
At the same time, we must retain robust planning procedures to challenge genuinely bad schemes and poor thinking. The dehumanised urban motorway schemes of the ’60s and ’70s were mercifully overturned, and few regret their abandonment.
Our system, however, gives too much power to the well-connected with time on their hands, and not enough to hard-pressed workers who stand to benefit most from improvements.
Gerry Lynch is director of communications for the diocese of Salisbury, but writes in a freelance capacity.