Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Heathrow decision commentary - Time to take politics out of infrastructure

So after decades the British government has (yet again) decided to build a third runway at Heathrow. Gordon Brown took the same decision eight years ago. At the time, the Tories (then in opposition) opposed the scheme. Now the position has been reveresed. Theresa May, in 2008 an opponent, has taken the plunge.  The opposition of the day sees votes in opposing schemes, appealing to nimby voters. Now I am not saying Heathrow is the right place to expand our airport capacity. I really don't know. There are all manner of valid arguments against a new runway at Heathrow. Some are raised by environmentalists, some by the neighbours, some by other areas that want the investment. There are also clear arguments in favour, not least that it had to go somewhere and why not capitalise on our best airport brand.

Heathrow isn't the only big infrastructure project that the government is pushing. We have HS2, we have Hinkley point and we have a slew of other projects, such as Great Western Electrification, Midland Mainline Electrification, City Airport Expansion, Crossrail, Crossrail 2, The London Sewer tunnel,  the list goes on. As someone who has always taken a keen interest in infrastructure, the one thing about all of these schemes is that all have been talked about for decades in some  form or the other. Some such as Great Western and Midland mainline are absolute no brainers. Some such as Hinkley point are massively controversial, but also desperately needed if we need the country to function. Then there are HS2 and Heathrow. Both can be justified, but also there are solid arguments for alternative schemes, many of which seem to offer far better solutions and better value for  money, to the anti campaigners, if no one else.

What is clear to me is that there is absolutely no joined up thinking on infrastructure spending. Billions are wasted on stop/start/stop/start projects.  Costs are trimmed to meet short term goals, which ultimately result in huge long term increases. A great example of this is how the Thameslink 2000 project (they dropped the 2000 bit from the name when it became an embarrassment, drawing attention to just how late the project is). Again it is a complete no brainer, but despite first having been proposed in the early 1980's by the GLC, it is only now reaching its final stages. The costs are perhaps ten times what was originally projected. London commuters have had decades of overcrowding. The reason for all of these delays/cost excalations?

That is simple, Politicians interfering. Each administration has its own pet projects. As a result, the previous lots obsessessions get paired back/canned/redrawn(*Delete as appropriate). You don't have to be a genius to see that this is a ridiculous system. We need to get the politics out of infrastructure planning and start thinking in a joined up manner. We need to ask if these projects are the best way to spend the billions. We need Hinkley point because we will not be generating enough electricity if it is not built. If we don't generate enough electricity, HS 2 won't run (neither will any other trains). But if we change the law so all new homes are properly insulated and all refurbishments are energy efficient, could we pair back our requirements. There's more than one way to balance our energy load. Will the new electric trains use energy recycling (where braking feeds energy back into the grid).  When we build new shopping centres like Brent Cross (also approved today, do we stipulate that they should be carbon neutral. Does HS2 and other rail schemes mean we need more or less runway space? HS1 has massively changed the transport mode used to travel to Paris. Is this a better model. I don't kn ow, I'm not qualified to answer, but I don't trust the politicans to deliver the right decisions. They have an awful track record. What we need is a better way of planning and spending on such projects. A Royal Commission would be a good first step. If things are needed lets build them and build them quickly, but lets ensure the decisions really are the best ones.

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