So HS2 is another step closer to fruition — 50,000 pages of detail closer no less. I have no trouble admitting I am delighted this project is moving along relatively swiftly, despite bumps in the road so far.
Like anyone with an interest, I have listened to and considered the arguments against HS2. I have concluded that most are too short-termist in their views, although not all are without merit.
We would all do well to remember that many of the great projects that have been delivered in the UK have been opposed and debated and yet ultimately delivered value way beyond what was predicted.
Even with the sophisticated benefit cost analytics and forecasting tools we have at our disposal, it’s extremely difficult to foresee the wider impact of a project of this scale. Michael Heseltine so aptly made this point in a recent speech, using the example of the Docklands regeneration to which he faced widespread opposition. Of course, Canary Wharf is now one of the world’s leading financial centres and the area also hosts an airport and a major exhibition centre.
There are so many factors to HS2 that need to be considered — such as the wider development opportunities and regional regeneration — that are far more long term and harder to define than the transport benefits that are most often touted.
Think of our Victorian railways, which are more than 150 years old. They still cost UK plc more than £5bn per annum, but there is no suggestion that we rip them up because the benefits cost ratio hasn’t stacked up as they deliver value over and beyond the cost.
However, to fully realise the benefits of HS2 the government needs to put funding plans in place now to secure local access for all. This would require a change in the way investment in regional infrastructure is allocated, from a piecemeal approach to one that allows local authorities to align investment decisions to the long-term social and economic needs of the region.
A recent Core Cities Report found that innovation is fostered through local government having more discretion over local public sector spending. Services can be streamlined and targeted more effectively to address local needs, while also reducing duplication and joining up services for the benefit of the public.
So we would like to see some explanation of how the ‘plans behind the plan’ for HS2 are going to be progressed and funded (see our Autumn Statement wishlist). Business investors need certainty when making long-term business investment decisions and this detail would certainly help.
At WSP we have regional offices, so HS2 would help us in the long term and our strategy would look to reflect on it. But I still fear that political footballing will delay and at worst derail what could be a real credit to the UK construction industry when delivered. The challenge is for the government, HS2 and the supply chain to use the best minds to make sure the best, most affordable solution is delivered. We most definitely have some of those great minds in our industry and this is a great opportunity to showcase them.