The proposed high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham will take at least another decade to complete. China has managed to connect Shanghai and Beijing within 36 months. It is not just rail networks, but entire infrastructures are taking the British ages to complete. Red tape is primarily to blame, writes Christopher Wheeler.
On the 27th of July 2011, 25 years after it was originally proposed and 4 years after initial building work began the Hindhead Tunnel in Surrey was finally opened. At the same time, debate in Britain about vital infrastructure improvements centres around the proposed High-Speed Rail Link between London and the major conurbations of the Midlands and the North. However, even if this proposal runs according to plan it will be at least halfway through the next decade before London and Birmingham are connected – let alone other cities such as Manchester and Leeds. These two examples are a classic indication of what seems to be a uniquely British problem namely a lack of initiative, drive and action when it comes to long-term infrastructure decisions.
To anyone who lives in Britain it has become obvious that in the last 30 to 40 years that many of the key pieces of infrastructure in this country, be they rail, road, airports, power generation and more recently internet and broadband coverage have reached their limits. Governments of all shades have claimed that they will invest and improve in all of these areas but very little, if anything, seems to be done and what does occur is usually done at a glacial pace for a ridiculous cost. This lack of action not only impacts the lives of the general population, which as it grows is putting even more of a strain on our ageing infrastructure, but it also has major effects on the economy of the country.
For any company a functioning, modern infrastructure that meets their needs is crucial for success. And therefore, any company looking to either set up or relocate to the UK has to take into account the rather decrepit infrastructure. This means that the UK as a whole is perhaps not as attractive as some other countries and makes the British economy less dynamic and competitive. The infrastructure problems of the United Kingdom also contribute to another of the most damaging factors affecting the economy namely the regional imbalances.
Due to major international airports in Britain being located mainly in the South of England, global companies have a tendency – because of major problems with the road and rail systems – to congregate in a relatively small and increasingly overcrowded part of the country. Similar problems occur throughout Britain where certain regions have a more dynamic and prosperous economy because they are simply more attractive to businesses. The lack of adequate and widespread modern infrastructure has contributed to a large extent to the huge variations that exist in the relative economic prosperity of regions of the country. The lack of initiative and drive when it comes to the big long-term infrastructure decisions is not only affecting the people of the United Kingdom it is also impacting on the economy.
How far Britain is lagging behind its major competitors when it comes to infrastructure improvements can be shown when you compare and contrast Britain with other countries in just two areas. Firstly, in the area of rail Britain is still planning and deciding where to build the first high speed rail which has nothing to do with the Channel Tunnel. In France, Germany and Japan, high speed rail has been working in some cases at least a decade or two and is pretty widespread.
Other countries in Europe also have introduced or are introducing high speed rail. China in the last decade has massively increased its high speed rail capability and recently built a line between Beijing and Shanghai in 36 months which covers a distance well in excess of Britain’s very moderate plans. Secondly, in the area of power generation, the UK is still debating what to replace the ageing coal and nuclear power stations with.
This has led to some concern that, at some point in the next two decades, the lights may go out in Britain. However, just across the Channel France already has a significant number of new nuclear power stations which are not only providing power to the French but also some areas of Southern England and Western Germany. There are numerous other examples such as airport developments and broadband coverage where nothing ever seems to get done.
The United Kingdom is therefore not just behind most other major advanced countries in terms of infrastructure – it isn’t even in the race. For any number of years British governments have talked big and delivered at a huge cost very little because the dead hand of bureaucracy and the grinding inertia of an army of pen pushers have systematically destroyed the initiative and dynamism needed for such long-term infrastructure projects.
What is needed is a massive change in the way infrastructure schemes are run and organised in Britain with there being a lot more action and a lot less red-tape and fewer reviews because it is a pretty sad state of affairs when it is obvious how far the United Kingdom is behind.
To read Christopher Wheeler’s other articles visit Christopher Wheeler’s Politics On Toast blog. This article is (C) Politics on Toast.