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by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 13
February 2020

Please Boris, let HS2 be your last white elephant

The PM should check his attraction to 'grands projets'
by Peter Franklin
This week Boris Johnson gave the final go-ahead to the 200 mile money pit that is HS2. Credit: Getty

Have you read about the plan to build two gigantic dams — one between Scotland and Norway, the other between Cornwall and Brittany? The idea is that this would protect a huge chunk of low-lying coastal Europe from rising sea levels. The price tag? £250-500 billion.

A bonkers idea, so let’s hope no one tells Boris Johnson — who’s never met a crazy infrastructure project he doesn’t like (apart from Heathrow).

This week he gave the final go-ahead to the 200 mile money pit that is HS2 — and also got serious about the idea of a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland. At a mere £20 billion, this would link somewhere outside Belfast with the heaving metropolis of Stranraer.

I’d like to propose a more modest engineering endeavour: a line in the sand. HS2 should be the last grand projet that gets approved by this government. Let’s have no more one-of-a-kind, all-or-nothing infrastructure schemes with out-of-control budgets.

Let’s concentrate on modular, micro-infrastructure instead. Projects whose key components are factory-produced commodities and where the experience gained through deployment can be reapplied over-and-over again (meaning that the more you build the cheaper it gets).

Furthermore, let’s make sure that if only part of a project is built, that part is still useful. For instance, half a bridge is not useful. Nor is half a nuclear power station or half a tower block. However, half a new fleet of buses will still get you somewhere. Half an offshore wind farm will still generate electricity. Half a street of houses can still be lived in.

The infrastructure we invest in should always give us options. The option of stopping, without writing-off the whole project, should costs escalate. Or the option of building more than originally planned, if things go especially well.

That way, the contractors and consultants have skin in the game — they are punished if they mess up, rewarded if they exceed expectations. But with big ticket infrastructure the boot is on the other foot. The purchaser (i.e. government) is at the mercy of the provider: pay more or lose it all.

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