Short-term politics hobbles UK infrastructure projects

The writer was founding chair of the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission (2015-2018) and a former transport secretary

What do a huge reservoir at Abingdon, new nuclear power stations in Anglesey and Cumbria, the electrification of the Transpennine inter-city railway and England’s largest onshore wind farm, on Scout Moor in Lancashire, have in common?

All four are big, vital pieces of national infrastructure proposed in the last 15 years. But all four were rejected or deferred, victims of “Nimby” opposition upheld by the government, and/or of the hostility of the Treasury and its utility regulators to major infrastructure projects, particularly those requiring significant public investment.

Poignantly, the first two projects are now being revived, faced with the imperatives of net zero, climate change and Russia’s attack on Ukraine, and with one of the hottest and driest summers on record. Rationing of both water and electricity — or self-rationing because of sky-high energy market prices — are the reality of the months ahead.

It is 30 years since a new reservoir was opened in England. Thames Water is seeking to revive the Abingdon project, rejected by the Cameron government in 2011 on the pretext that there was “no immediate need” for it, after a decade-long planning battle. Two more reservoirs are now planned for the south-east alone, and are set for lengthy planning battles. Yet even these huge storage facilities will make good only a third of the projected shortfall of water in 20 years’ time, and they presuppose dramatic progress on reducing usage and leakage.

On nuclear power, the last Labour government had plans for 10 new power stations to replace 11 ageing nuclear reactors, the last of them also opened nearly 30 years ago. France, by comparison, has 56 nuclear reactors, providing three-quarters of its electricity — though much of it is offline at the moment for maintenance. Anglo-Saxon “wisdom” that the French nuclear power programme was Gaullist statism run riot is no longer so obvious, in the face of Vladimir Putin’s aggression as well as net zero.

It is farcical for Boris Johnson to suggest that the UK could now open one nuclear power station every year after a short planning process. Hinkley Point C, the UK’s one current nuclear power project, was initiated more than a decade ago and won’t be commissioned for at least another five years. The complex £25bn private financing package, led by French energy giant EDF, took years to negotiate and has kept changing in a forlorn Treasury bid to limit risk. It is not replicable for future projects, yet no new blueprint either for financing or for accelerating the planning process is proposed for further projects.

As for renewables, which are central to the UK’s net zero ambition given the lack of nuclear capacity, politicians say and do entirely different things. Not only is Scout Moor still beyond the pale: both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have pledged in leadership hustings with Tory party members that there will be no new onshore wind farms of any size, yet they are among the most cost effective of renewable power sources.

The saga of “northern powerhouse rail” to link the cities from Liverpool and Manchester to Leeds, York and Hull is equally fraught. A decade after its announcement, there is still no proper scheme, let alone any construction.

It needn’t be this way. HS2, currently under construction from London to Birmingham and Crewe just 12 years after the plan was first proposed, shows that it is possible to execute major schemes in Britain, provided there is strong government leadership and cross-party support. The same was true of the motorway system, built in the 1960s and 1970s, and the electricity and gas grids upon which we still rely.

The problem is that short-term politics, and a never-ending planning system, too easily subvert even the best proposals. Tellingly, HS2 is proceeding by way of parliamentary legislation conferring the planning consents directly, not through the conventional planning system. The same should happen with other national projects of strategic importance.

The establishment of the National Infrastructure Commission, to identify strategic priorities independently of the government, is another step in the right direction. But under the patronage of the Treasury, it is subject to some of the very forces it needs to counteract. Its biggest intervention of late was to recommend cutting the eastern leg of HS2 to Leeds in return for a bigger rail scheme in the north. Now, neither will happen.

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