The UK needs more than just a £50bn transport solution

There is a phrase I particularly like in Sir David Higgins’ HS2 Plus report published this week. 

The High Speed 2 project, he explains “is ambitious because it needs to be, to meet the demands not just of the here and now, but of the future”.

I like this phrase because, to me, it explains why bold thinking around infrastructure is so important and even more clearly explains why we have failed over the last decades to keep pace with our infrastructure needs. 

Incremental, small time, make-do-and-mend thinking may well be easy. But whether we are talking HS2, airport capacity or housing, only ambition and  taking difficult decisions is going to move the economic dial.  

Now, I am regularly accused of being far too pro-HS2. And, over the last few years since the project came back onto the radar in 2009, it would be fair to say that I have written many a supportive word on the subject.

So has my engineering passion overtaken my journalistic objectivity? Not at all. I do genuinely think it is a good thing for the nation to invest in. 

A good thing, but certainly not an easy thing, a cheap thing or universally popular thing to deliver. And we will do well not to let these realities stray too far from top of mind.

However, it is certainly ambitious and it certainly requires difficult decisions to be taken. 

That alone does not, of course, make it a good project or even one that the nation should pursue. For that justification we must move to my second favourite phrase in the report.

As Higgins puts it: “Without proper transport infrastructure, any attempt to bring jobs and housing to an area will not work. [HS2] is the essential enabler for real and lasting regeneration”. 

I understand and agree that HS2 is critical to providing much needed capacity on the overstretched rail network. But it is more than a transport project. It must also be an opportunity for cities and local authorities up and down the UK to lever in much needed investment and so start to redress the north-south economic divide.

Last week George Osborne rebooted the long stalled Ebbfleet housing development as a rebranded Garden City based around HS1 and a new urban development corporation model to ease planning. 

And this week we will perhaps hear how infrastructure minister Lord Deighton’s Growth Task force will build on this concept to help planning authorities capitalise on and boost development in the regions around the HS2 stations and interchanges. 

I hope so because we do need such ambitious, perhaps controversial planning reforms to help kickstart the regeneration and vitally needed housing projects that will support and be supported by HS2’s transport infrastructure step-change. 

Which leads me to my third favourite Higgins phrase added on Monday: “Transport investment,” he said, “has changed from being a cost centre to a strategic investment that drives growth”. 

As such the £50.1bn HS2 price tag invested over the next 20 years is surely small beer to any ambitious, forward thinking nation that wants to stay ahead with modern infrastucture and a decent housing stock.


Antony Oliver is the editor of Infrastructure Intelligence

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