Britain’s infrastructure curse is forcing us into decline, but it doesn’t have to be this way

When the Bridgewater Canal from the Mersey to Manchester was built in 1761, the price of coal fell by half within a year.

Then, in 1830, the world’s first inter-city railway line opened, of course, between Liverpool and Manchester. Its success among passengers and freight met universal acclaim.

This was the sort of infrastructure on which Britain’s wealth was built. Grand relics to this era of big imagination and can-do attitude stand tall today. The railway viaducts, built over a century ago, loom over the British countryside as monuments to a time where Britain built things. As Manchester became Cottonopolis, a thriving financial sector grew: the Refuge Assurance building still rivals the glittering skyscrapers of the Oxford Road corridor. Just up the road is an extravagant railway hotel called the Midland, where Conservatives will congregate once again this weekend. Next door, at their conference centre, they’ll have to justify the watering down of a high speed rail network that should have been built years ago.

Britain’s stopped building

Because now, we don’t build very much at all. If those pioneers who engineered and built the backbone of Britain were around today, they’d face the intractable opposition of an unholy alliance of NIMBYs and faux-environmentalists, and a political system that places their interests above those of the country.

We don’t want the Bridgewater Canal: it’s a vanity project. We don’t want that railway viaduct: it goes through green belt land. We don’t want the basis of the economic transformation of Britain and much of the World: the business case isn’t clear.

This is what is happening with HS2. It’s the same with housing, or onshore wind, or nuclear, or reservoirs, or lab space, or urban mass transit.

But, with the government now considering scrapping yet another leg, now Birmingham to Manchester, and thus cutting off the cities that once built Britain’s future, HS2 is the most egregious example yet of a political system that has lost its imagination, lost its common sense, and lost its faith in Britain.

It’s not like this in other countries

When the FT averaged the costs of a dozen recent major rail projects in the UK and adjust for inflation, British schemes come in at a staggering £262 million per mile. In contrast, Japan’s renowned bullet train network costs £145 million per mile, Sweden’s projects come in at £92 million per mile, Italy’s at £74 million, France’s at £42 million, and Germany’s at a remarkably efficient £34 million per mile.

Why is this? Quite simply, it’s NIMBYism and dithering.

Since 2012, the average time required to secure the necessary approvals has increased by a staggering 65%, soaring from 2.6 years to a protracted 4.2 years. This elongated process follows a pre-application phase that, on average, takes two years, although in many cases, it stretches out even longer.

A vicious cycle

You might say, then, that there’s no economic case for it.

You might point to the report calling it undeliverable. Well, it’s deliverable in other countries.

You might point to Northern Powerhouse Rail and say that’s more important. Well, we should have built that too and we haven’t. And in any case, the two are dependent on each other.You might point to comments like those of the IFS’s Paul Johnson today: “The original sin was agreeing to do it in the first place”. No. The original sin was Britain’s anti-building planning laws that allow a vicious cycle of dither, delay, placate NIMBYs, costs rising, delay, pare back the plans, delay.

HS2 is inevitable

The necessity of HS2 is clear to anybody who goes out and about in the country. If you work from home in Buckinghamshire, you might not directly benefit. Those who oppose it are opposing the obvious economic benefits of connecting the country. The ability to live in Manchester, work in Birmingham, meet clients in London.

That obvious economic logic, which would put us on par with a normal European country, makes HS2 a necessity.

Every day delaying it is a delay in the opportunities to be had. There are businesses, innovations, relationships, that haven’t started in that time.

The longer it goes on the more it costs. But it should have been built 30 years ago.

So opposing HS2 is opposing the future.

The private sector is there to deliver it. All business needs is for government to stick to a plan for more than five minutes. The UK’s regulatory processes appear sluggish and unpredictable compared to other nations, resulting in reduced investment and inflated infrastructure costs. The political short-termism that sees a likely watering down of our key national transport project and of Net Zero policy in the same week only compounds that unpredictability.

What we need to do

It doesn’t have to be like this.

Limiting the planning timeline for strategic infrastructure projects is a first step to reversing Britain’s slide into decline.

Sending more government machinery outside of London – a policy both parties share – will help overcome the isolated mindset that simply cannot comprehend why a high-speed rail network connecting the North and Midlands would have real benefits.

And of course, devolving more power through new trailblazers and combined authorities will mean that more places, like Greater Manchester launching the Bee Network this week, can do things by themselves.

The grand railway hotel, the Midland in Manchester, where Conservatives will stay for their conference once again this year

But in order to really level up and boost the country, the government needs to hold the line on HS2.

We can’t fall behind in the new industrial revolution

We’re at the tipping point of another industrial revolution. The pace of development in generative AI in the last year parallels the turn of the nineteenth century. We could be thinking big: building new civic educational establishments, investing in research and development, and investing in the connectivity between competitive industrial clusters. Instead, we cannot commit to a trainline that any other European country would have built quicker and more cheaply than us.

As Andy Haldane said this week, we should “be talking not about HS2 being thin-sliced, but about HS3, HS4 and HS5”.

There is nothing British , or inevitable, about this decline. If only we can get back to having a shred of the imagination of the Victorians, things might just get better again.