Modern Britain seems utterly incapable of building anything
Our Victorian forebears have often been derided by subsequent generations, found guilty of a range of sins from ruthless capitalism and gloomy architecture to imperialism and sexual repression. Whatever you make of such charges, a clear point in their favour is that they got things done.
When the first ironclads revolutionised naval warfare, the Royal Navy ensured that it used the new technology to maintain its untouchable global pre-eminence. Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s sewer system vastly improved Londoners’ health and quality of life. And then of course there were the railways. By the start of the First World War there were around 23,000 miles of line in Britain, mostly laid in the 19th century.
That kind of dynamism has long since faded from British public life, as demonstrated by the continued uncertainty over the fate of HS2. It has now emerged that yet more parts will be scrapped, including — remarkably — the section between Birmingham and Manchester. It has also been suggested that the London terminus will be Old Oak Common in Ealing, rather than Euston. If this turns out to be correct, we will have paid considerably over £100bn for a link between Birmingham and the west London suburbs. The improvements in capacity that HS2 was meant to deliver for the West Coast, East Coast and Midland Main Lines will be much diminished.
Cost overruns have been crippling. Huge amounts have gone on consultations and consultants, environmental impact assessments, and all the other paraphernalia of the modern vetocracy. The need to placate Tory voters in the rural south Midlands has meant enormous amounts of expensive tunnelling — nearly half of the entire London to Birmingham route will be underground.
Almost worse than the disastrous failure to control costs, however, is the lack of vision and managerial competence on show. It’s not simply the decision to give up on the northern branches of HS2, dispiriting as that is. At a very early stage, for example, it was decided not to link HS2 to the existing high-speed line that runs from St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel, meaning that direct trains to the continent from cities other than London would be out of the question for the foreseeable future.
In July this year, the Infrastructure Projects Authority (IPA) reported that the entire scheme might be “unachievable”, noting that many of the problems appeared unmanageable or unresolvable. For over a decade now, successive governments have responded to the increasing difficulties faced by HS2 not by getting a grip on the project — perhaps by bringing in experienced experts from countries that have managed to build high-speed rail — but instead by gradually scaling down the plans, abandoning the original ambitions, and accepting delays.
It now seems quite likely that by the end of this decade, we will have the exact same mileage of operational high-speed line as we did when the 67 miles of HS1 first opened in November 2007, 16 years ago. By way of comparison, France has something like 1,700 miles of high-speed routes, with plans to add more.
The malaise that surrounds HS2 is far from unique when it comes to modern British infrastructure projects. From nuclear power to housebuilding and all points in between, our government and civil service seem paralysed by the scale of the task of national renewal. There are too many choke points, and too few politicians or administrators with the skill and the courage to overcome them.