Modern Britain seems to have lost its infrastructure mojo. We know that it is imperative that we build for the future, in order to remain economically competitive and to reduce the effects of climate change, but somehow it is often put in the box marked ‘too hard to do’.
A review of the National Infrastructure report part 2
Britain was once the epicentre of the Industrial Revolution and for at least 100 years Britain was at the cutting edge of science and technology. To some extent it still is. As well as new industrial processes – such as steam power, mechanical weaving, and coal-fired iron founding – the Industrial Revolution also depended on improved means of transporting goods and services from the factory to the consumer. Macadamised highways, canals, and intercity railways, all cut journey times and powered growth.
Even in those days of yore, apart from the technical challenge of building a canal, road or railway there were protests from the 18th and 19th century counterparts of today’s NIMBYs (not in my back yard). These ranged from recalcitrant, grasping landowners and rival businesses, to a powerful nature lobby, who in those days tended to slaughter wildlife, rather than conserve it. All were intent on halting change, or at least only allowing it on their terms. Major projects went way over budget (like the Great Western Railway) and/or took years to build (like the Leeds and Liverpool Canal which took nearly 50 years to complete). But in the end they were built.
Cost is the first obstacle
Even today, cost is the first obstacle. Either our engineers and architects are spectacularly useless at quantity surveying, or they deliberately understate the cost, knowing that the politicians will never buy into a project at the true cost. How many times have we seen infrastructure projects run way over budget? The Elizabeth Line in London, Edinburgh Trams, Hinkley Point C Nuclear Power plant, and now HS2, are but a few examples. Of course, construction is not the only sector to run amok over cost control, as countless IT projects have gone haywire. For example, the BMJ reported on the ‘eye-watering’ cost of the NHS Test and Trace system, which never worked properly.
Britain is also blessed with a privatised utilities network that has made ‘sweating the asset’ into an art form, to the point that public concerns over a hitherto overlooked environment sector, are now headline news. The cakeism of the energy, environment, and telecoms sectors, in generating high profits and large shareholder dividends while at the same time expecting the consumer and government to pay for network upgrades, is becoming a serious source of public disquiet.
National Infrastructure Commission
The mere fact that the UK requires a National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), speaks volumes on our lack of progress with infrastructure planning and execution. The UK seems to be in a perpetual cycle of ‘stop-go’ management of infrastructure – one minute authorising very costly infrastructure projects, and then cancelling or truncating them later on, as in the case of the HS2 rail project.
Apart from infrastructure which had a military requirement (some roads in Scotland and Ireland), the private sector financed and built infrastructure in the 19th century. Two world wars and the introduction of motor vehicles changed how infrastructure was planned and financed. The motorway system was funded almost entirely by taxation, as tolls were anathema to politicians, who were afraid of the motoring lobby. Since the millennium there have been several proposals on toll roads, the latest being a proposal to replace VED (vehicle excise duty paid annually by car-owners) as electric car ownership surges, but they are unlikely to become policy. The situation we have today is publicly funded infrastructure, interposed with levies from the public almost indistinguishable from taxation, to fund improvements to the utilities network.
The former is a call to action when it states:
“The UK can have a low carbon and resilient economy with infrastructure that supports economic growth and protects the natural environment. Delivering such an infrastructure system will require the government to make bold decisions, plan for the long term and support households through the transition. The UK needs to invest in its future – and now is the time to act.”National Infrastructure Assessment, published by the NIC
The latter is a rag-bag of projects, ranging from improvements to rail networks in the North to funding for pothole fixing everywhere, and various pet road schemes in the South. An early announcement was £150mn of former HS2 money being ‘reallocated’ for bus services. Network North’s credibility was dented when it included an extension to the Manchester tramlink which already existed and the abrupt withdrawal of funding for the Leamside Line in the North East.
The Infrastructure Commission has made the following ‘core recommendations’:
- Adding low carbon, flexible technologies to the electricity system.
- Making a clear decision that electrification is the only viable option for decarbonising buildings at scale.
- Investing in public transport upgrades in England’s largest regional cities.
- Ensuring gigabit-capable broadband is available nationwide by 2030 and supporting the market to roll out new 5G services.
- Preparing for a drier future by putting plans in place to deliver additional water supply infrastructure and reduce leakage, while also reducing water demand.
- Setting long-term measurable targets and ensuring funded plans are in place to significantly reduce the number of properties that are at risk of flooding by 2055.
- Delivering a more sustainable waste system.
How should this happen?
- Removing barriers and accelerating decisions.
- Taking long term decisions and demonstrating staying power.
- Pace, not perfection on project management.
- Furthering devolution.
- Adaptive planning.
(This is a précis for the full text see national infrastructure assessment.)
Network North in contrast is a complete negation of the NIC recommendations, as it is clearly an extemporised wishlist of projects that are added and subtracted in an incoherent way, designed to fix a general election due within the next 12 months.
What about the infrastructure in Kent?
Kent has a population of around 1.5 million, not far off Northern Ireland and growing. Approximately 73% of the population is urban or suburban, and 27% is classed as rural. The two plans, Network North and the NIC review, do mention Kent. As far as I know, Kent is in the far south of the UK, so why it is mentioned in the Network North plan, is anyone’s guess. Both plans have a fixation about Brenley Corner, which is termed as a nightmare-roundabout.
Brenley Corner was a bit of a lash-up, done on the cheap like so much in East Kent. It is a source of road congestion, but no more so than other parts of East Kent. The A2 from Brenley Corner is poorly maintained, and prone to flooding; access to Canterbury from the A2 is congested and missing link roads. The section from Sheperdswell to Dover is definitely not fit for purpose. Neither Network North, nor the NIC review has anything to resolve the Dover harbour TAP problem at peak periods.
Kent’s public transport is rundown
Public transport in Kent is rundown or nonexistent. Kent has a mainly Victorian rail system maintained in much the same condition for decades (HS1 was not built for Kent, but as a link to Europe, and only a few local services use it). The bus network teeters on the point of collapse, supported in the main by sticking plaster subventions of cash from the government.
In many rural areas, public transport (bus or rail) has ceased to exist. The car is often the only option, but this means that many barely unimproved roads, such as the A258 running into Dover, are now heavily congested. East Kent is currently receiving more development, which increases traffic flows and the acreage under tarmac, without improving connectivity. Poor road maintenance (potholes, road markings, and signs), is partly addressed in Network North, but is this the right policy? Surely Network North means the North, not southern potholes or Brenley Corner?
‘Moonshot’ style projects
My biggest complaint is that there is a lot of ‘ moonshot’ style major connectivity and big city projects in both reports, but much of England north and south is provincial, made up of small and medium-sized towns and rural areas. Neither of these reports tackles the issue of a crumbling edge of quality in provincial England’s infrastructure. Failure to address this lack of infrastructure is becoming an issue, as you cannot build more housing and continue to ignore infrastructure capacity and conditions. Building one-off projects at substantial cost, such as the Dover Fast Track bus system and Thanet Parkway railway station, is not solving the wider problem, and has the appearance of distraction politics, to show something is being done.
Of the two reports, the NIC review is well thought out and is a blueprint for the future. Network North is by contrast a much more sketchy, incoherent document.
Kent requires a report of the quality of the NIC review but focused on delivering local infrastructure projects to enable housing and other development in a sustainable manner.