Tuesday, August 01, 2023

GUEST POST Why is the UK failing so badly at infrastructure?

Our obsolete political system and a lack of knowledge and experience in the civil service have made Britain an also-ran in infrastructure investment, argues James Oates.

On the face of it, we are in something of a golden era for investment British infrastructure. The Elizabeth Line (Crossrail) in London, was just opened on 21 May 2023, and at the same time the full-scale construction of the HS2 high speed rail line between London and Birmingham is now underway, with a projected completion date of between 2029 and 2033. The Thames Tideway super sewer is also now on course to be completed by 2025. 

Over the course of the last decade, 400 miles of UK Motorway have been turned into 'smart motorways'. A programme of junction improvements across the country is another significant investment in the national road network. 

Yet, the slightest comparison shows that the UK is in deep trouble. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which reviews major projects on behalf of the government now believes that at least one in ten of current major infrastructure projects cannot now be achieved, including HS2.

Much of what is being built is drastically behind schedule. Crossrail was first proposed in 1941, and in the time the UK has built two through lines in London, namely Crossrail and Thameslink, France has built five, all significantly longer. 

As for High-speed rail lines, France has built over 2800 km of such lines, while HS1 is 109km and even if completed, HS2 will only be 225km in length. Much of the British railway infrastructure runs along the equivalent of cobbled streets, which explains our low standing in the Global Economy ranking of the quality of nations' railway infrastructure - and we do little better in their ranking of roads.

More to the point, the French have been able to build these projects for far cheaper as well as far quicker than the UK. The construction of the LGV from Paris to Bordeaux, 302km of new built lines, which was completed in 2017, had a total project cost of €9bn (£7.7bn at current exchange). 

The scheduled project cost of HS2 is already over budget at £44 billion, and this is only for Phase 1, London to Birmingham and Phase 2a, Birmingham to Crewe. There is no current budget to complete phase 2b of the project to Manchester, and the Eastern alignment to Sheffield may be abandoned altogether. 

How come the UK is going to spend well over ten times the amount that France spent on the LGV Sud Ouest and end up with a project that delivers little or even nothing?

Many suggest that there is a question of geography: that South East England is extremely crowded and that land costs are much higher than is France. This is true, but only a small part of the story: the NAO estimates that the cost of purchases for phase one of the project (including c.£900m of compulsory purchases) was a total of around €3bn. 

So, given that the purchases have now largely been completed, the costs are high, but not insane. Nor are the specific geological problems for construction much different in France versus Southern England, so how come the build costs are so massively higher in the UK versus France?

One suggestion as to why UK costs are so high is that contractors are not kept under constant control by the build customer. That each large infrastructure project requires individual delivery authorities, and that there is a churn between these authorities and the contractors. 

This is certainly anecdotally true, but the costs are reviewed by central ministries and ultimately by the National Audit Office. In theory then, any questions of bid irregularities should be at least kept under control, if not eliminated entirely.

In practice, however, things may not be properly reviewed at all. The benchmark for contractors is that bid prices reflect the prevailing market conditions and this generally means therefore that the lowest bids are accepted. The risk of the open bidding process being subverted by insider knowledge is clear, and equally, though hard to prove, it appears to be widespread.

The problem for infrastructure investment, as with so much in the UK government system is that the central civil service no longer has a body of experience and knowledge that allows it to evaluate design and build issues from a position of control.  Delivery authorities are not beholden to the civil service, given that the longer-term career interests for those who serve with them are more likely to be aligned with the private sector, once the project is complete. 

The costs of engaging consultants to provide the necessary expertise is extremely high, and again, interests may not be fully aligned.  In any event the issues with both the delivery authorities and the consultants are too short term to work efficiently for the longer-term issues that large scale infrastructure is likely to involve.

Some would argue that the whole process should be nationalised, and that the IPA takes executive powers or a new body could be created. My own view is that, while such planning could certainly benefit from a more coherent policy approach, the issue is to create a skill set and culture within the UK civil service that can adequately supervise the delivery authorities, and that if there is a clear career path for those involved in the delivery authorities, it should be within the public sector as much as the private.

The UK, for environmental, social, and economic reasons needs to modernise its infrastructure. The combination of the obsolete political system and underinvested, poorly structured and badly motivated civil service is making Britain the also-ran in global infrastructure investment and undermining our whole future. 

We talk a lot about policy. We do not talk enough about administration and delivery, and while this is true in much of the British public sector, it is now critical in the way we build our infrastructure in the coming few years. Civil service training and incentives will be at the heart of the coming debate.

Are we ready?

James Oates blogs at Cicero's Songs and you can follow him on Twitter.

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