The government is consulting on speeding up processes for implementing national infrastructure projects. Given the history of cost overruns, failures, dubious claims about benefits and the environmental and climate impacts of many projects, a review of the assumptions and values behind the idea of national infrastructure seems more appropriate. Let us look at some of the assumptions the government has not considered as part of criteria to determine planning consents.
1. HS2 or other better railway investment?
HS2 is now rated unachievable by the official infrastructure watchdog, after billions spent, attenuation of project and considerable environmental damage.
As part of decarbonising railways and increasing alternatives to car movements, we need a fully electrified railway system. Currently, plans to electrify the UK’s railways are running so far short of what is needed, that it would take 240 years at current rates to reach the net zero goal. Over a three-year period, to the end of 2025, the UK is set to electrify 162.5km (101 miles) of railway track, which is only about 12% of that needed to reach the goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Equally important is the absence of a well-funded programme to restore disused rail lines. However, so far, funding for re-opening disused lines has been derisory. In the Oxford context, the re-opening of the Cowley rail line and of the Oxford to Witney/Carterton line would bring vital traffic reduction to a city suffering from serious traffic congestion and severe over-capacity usage of junctions in the rush hour-school runs. But there is no definite timing for the completion of either essential project.
2. Large-scale infrastructure using fossil fuels and physical resources, or decarbonisation and cutting GHGs?
The government has promoted the idea of decarbonisation but the transport sector in particular requires a fundamental reappraisal and entirely different policies to cut carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) being released into the atmosphere. It is, after all, the major UK sector for carbon emissions, contributes substantially to air pollution, and both kills people and undermines public health.
The Committee on Climate Change has said it does not consider the government to have credible policies to reach its own net zero by 2050 targets. New infrastructure, where existing infrastructure cannot be upgraded, needs to occur within a framework of zero GHG emissions, reflected in a far more rigorous consent process. Since alleged transport demand is often used to justify new infrastructure, it follows that the deepest carbon cuts possible should fall on transport to ensure the 1.5° C threshold is not breached.
3. Cost overruns on infrastructure
Infrastructure projects are notorious for delays and cost overruns. We could have full-cost bids by those contracting to build such infrastructure, backed up by legislation. Companies could be required to insure themselves against cost overrun risks, and not expect public funding when this occurs. Nuclear power is exceptional for cost overruns and delays, making it the worst form of private and public investment failure. Government guidance on public procurement states that:
“The over-riding procurement policy requirement is that all public procurement must be based on value for money, defined as ‘the best mix of quality and effectiveness for the least outlay over the period of use of the goods or services bought’. This should be achieved through competition, unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary”.
However, the frequent cost overruns and delays on major infrastructure projects make it clear that the current system is not achieving value for money: the cheapest bid is not always the best quality bid. Public procurement must treat climate, ecology and social justice criteria as higher priorities than simple cost-effectiveness.
The Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 requires that at the pre-procurement stage the social, environmental, and economic wellbeing of the area in which the contract will be applied should be considered. As the UK is the most nature depleted country in Europe, evidence of criteria being applied is wanting.
In 2021 the government issued guidance on public procurement which required that suppliers bidding for major government contracts should commit to achieving net zero by 2050 and publish a ‘carbon reduction plan’. Again, this appears to have had no practical effect given the UK’s lack of progress on net zero.
4. National versus local infrastructure
The national infrastructure process of consents could meet tests such as: to what extent greater local benefit might arise by dispersing spending to many other projects in local council areas? For example, instead of spending some £27-30bn per year on new trunk roads, inducing far more traffic and journeys, the same funds could go to:
- Active travel, to promote health and reduce traffic;
- Road surface renewal and repairs, as there is about a 14-year backlog of road repairs;
- Pavement repairs.
5. NHS and schools needs over roads, ports and airports
The government has a new programme for hospitals. The National Audit Office indicates that the claimed 40 new hospitals will not be completed by 2030, partly because of failures in the process of commissioning causing delays.
With regard to schools, the government has made a variety of statements concerning new schools in particular. However, the overall programme has been too slow to prevent closure of classrooms which are deteriorating through neglect and a lack of replacements.
In short, building and rebuilding hospitals and schools and making them zero carbon when functioning is a far higher priority than many other infrastructure proposals.
National infrastructure projects, especially roads, are about values, not necessarily about actual needs. The Newbury by-pass achieved only about three years of reduction of traffic in the middle of Newbury and is an example of the expensive failures of the by-pass idea. Road building across the Oxford-Cambridge ‘arc’ for the 1% of people travelling or commuting across this axis would be about placing a higher value on road building whilst ignoring compelling evidence that it is not needed.
The National Infrastructure Commission has reported quite clearly that Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge are each centres of commuting serving their roles as employment centres. Their report on the topic did not provide any evidence in favour of new road building across the ‘Arc’. Professor John Whitelegg has written a compelling argument for reducing mobility, by personal choice, as a contribution to things such as self-confidence, spatial ability and relationship skills.
We are not going to get there from here. If we want to re-legitimise politics, it would make sense to localise the benefits of new infrastructure so that people can see useful refurbishments and sometimes new infrastructure in their own areas. Imagine the number of very low-cost council apartments which could be located above car parks, near existing facilities, instead of generating big new infrastructure needs by locating new homes on the countryside, for example.
NB: The author would like to thank Hazel Dawe, a law lecturer, for her overall comments and for material in section 3.
Ed: The deadline for the government consultation is 19 September.
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