Infrastructure projects tend to be divisive, at least once you try to actually build them. Most of them seem to end up fuelling battles between lobbies and advocates of competing schemes and affected interests.
But there is one issue which ought to unite the partisans of Heathrow, Gatwick, and ‘Boris Island’, or indeed HS2 and the myriad alternative uses for its ballooning budget, and that is the urgent to try and ensure that at least something gets built.
There are a wide range of factors which appear to conspire to main Britain a particularly terrible country in which to embark on grands projets. Our long tradition of private property rights means that the Government has never grown blasé about compulsory purchase, and an ever-more litigious culture – combined with a judiciary which has been slowing expanding the scope of judicial review – gives opponents plenty of opportunities to snarl up projects of national importance.
Add to that powerful lobbies and an increasingly rebellious legislature, as well as the sort of post-approval problems which have made HS2 so controversial, and it is perhaps no surprise that successive governments tend to be reluctant to take full ownership of major infrastructure proposals in the way that’s necessary to bulldoze them through.
The question is, what to do about it? It’s unlikely that the Government will be able to find a cure for ‘cost disease‘, an affliction which is by no means confined to the UK – although it could perhaps explore how ministerial decisions can lead to spiralling costs.
Nor is the political side necessarily any easier. Any proposals to change the institutional architecture around infrastructure decisions – such as Stephen Hammond’s call for a Department of Infrastructure – must reckon with a difficult trade-off. Either the move shifts decision-making away from political control (not a great look for a Government theoretically exercised about the growth of un-elected power), or it will be of limited use if MPs and ministers continue to shy away from taking full ownership of long-term, controversial decisions.
One move might be to re-assess the wisdom of letting previous parliaments impose abstract yet legally-binding targets on their successors without grasping the actual implications of that for practical policy. Otherwise the Prime Minister’s own NHS targets may become the next hurdle he trips on in court.