Why the country's biggest infrastructure projects have hit problems, by Angus Walker

With news that a third runway at Heathrow is being delayed, pretty much all the country's largest infrastructure projects are having problems of one sort or another.

The problems are either of the projects’ own making or because the government is cooling its ardour for them.

In the first category Crossrail, or the Elizabeth Line, was due to open in December 2018, but will now probably open in the autumn of 2021.  This seems to be largely due to difficulties in ensuring that the signalling systems in the eastern, central and western parts of the line work with trains that will operate across all three areas.

The main contributor to the Heathrow delay is the Civil Aviation Authority, which has only allowed Heathrow Airport Ltd to raise £500m from its customers instead of the £2.6bn it was seeking. This means it cannot meet the original 2026 opening date, which has consequently been moved back to 2028 or 2029. Meanwhile, the government is expressing neutrality about the project.

Another project on which the government now appears lukewarm is HS2, which is being reviewed by Doug Oakervee at ministers’ behest. The terms of reference are to look at whether and how the project should proceed.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps announced during the election campaign that there would be a review of the Oxford to Cambridge Expressway, but that may not necessarily materialise – I haven’t heard anything about it since.

All this is at odds with the government’s desire to publish a National Infrastructure Strategy on the date of the next budget (recently announced as March 11) and ‘implement the biggest infrastructure revolution in living memory’, according to the Queen’s Speech briefing document. So why the disconnect?

To misquote Tolstoy, ‘happy projects are all alike; every unhappy project is unhappy in its own way’. In other words, there are special and unique reasons for each project’s problems. But as well as those, there are generalisations that can be made. The scale of these projects means that there are particular difficulties predicting and keeping to time estimates because there are so many factors at play. The problems with the largest projects get more airtime, too. Almost every project gets delayed to some extent; there is nothing wrong with having a challenging timescale to aim at, but delays to larger projects get more publicity. Finally, these projects by their nature take a very long time from start to finish compared with smaller projects, and the politicians supporting them change, even if the same party stays in power. The successors of the original supporters may not have the same priorities.

It is on the last front that it is all the more important that a National Infrastructure Strategy is produced so that projects that transcend five-year (or at the current rate, two-year) electoral cycles can still be planned and built. Roll on March 11!

Angus Walker is a partner at BDB Pitmans


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