UK’s infrastructure reputation on the line, as HS2 is delayed

ACE and EIC chief executive Stephen Marcos Jones calls on government to protect global standing of the industry in the UK.

Stephen Marcos Jones, chief executive of ACE and EIC.

At the Association for Consultancy and Engineering, we champion infrastructure and the built environment in the UK.

Therefore, the image of this vital industry in a global context is of great importance to us - and our member firms, who employ more than 60,000 people in the UK and 250,000 worldwide. 

It is of great concern to ACE that progress towards major infrastructure objectives has “stuttered further, just as the need for acceleration has heightened” to borrow a phrase used by our friends at the National Infrastructure Commission. (see pages 22 & 23).

Long term social, economic and environmental goals

We fully agree with the commission’s call for the UK government to develop stronger staying power and focus on fewer, bigger, better targeted initiatives, to deliver the infrastructure needed to meet long-term goals for economic growth and a lower carbon economy.

The commission’s annual Infrastructure Progress Review highlights positive progress towards nationwide coverage of gigabit broadband by 2030 and continued growth in renewable electricity, both of which, it notes, have enjoyed a relatively stable policy environment.

However, there have been “negligible advances in improving the energy efficiency of UK homes, the installation of low carbon heating solutions or securing a sustainable balance of water supply and demand,” which have been subject to a more short-term and changeable approach in recent years.

Confident and robust approach to infrastructure policy

The UK needs a confident, robust and non-partisan approach to infrastructure policy, because infrastructure is central to a green and prosperous UK recovery.

Further delays and a lack of long-term strategy and commitment to major infrastructure projects result in uncertainty throughout the industry.

This damages confidence in the UK's economic and social recovery.

At ACE, we support the NIC’s call for greater clarity for industry from government as well as the devolution of funding and decision-making to local areas. 

Additionally, some of the recommendations in the NIC’s report mirror the asks of our 2023 Policy Manifesto, specifically in relation to post-project appraisal and reviewing lessons learnt as well as the importance of proposals to speed up National Significant Infrastructure Projects.

HS2 delay is a false economy

The recent disappointing announcement from secretary of state for transport Mark Harper that parts of the HS2 line between Birmingham, Crewe and Manchester will be “rephased” by two years, taken as a result of inflationary pressures, represents an absolute false economy.

It is a prime example of the issues the NIC and ACE are trying to address, as we call for the government and policymakers in infrastructure sector to have a major rethink about how these projects are formed and promoted to the public.

Of course, we understand that large-scale infrastructure projects like HS2 are naturally subject to market fluctuations and plans are always subject to changes at different stages.

But long experience of postponement of major infrastructure projects tells us there will be an inevitable increase in overall costs as well as an overall loss of benefits – including addressing regional disparities across the UK. 

Reputational damage to UK

It is of great concern to members of ACE that, as the HS2 project is being viewed on a global stage, what the rest of the world thinks about our ability to deliver major infrastructure projects is impaired by this major setback.

Having to announce such a delay could hamper industry confidence and cause reputational damage to the UK.

Our members contribute more than £15bn to the UK economy and over £570bn globally each year and we simply cannot afford to risk such reputational damage.

ACE policy manifesto

In our 2023 policy manifesto, we recognise that current and future governments face a huge challenge when deciding how to invest in transport, whilst simultaneously working to decarbonise it and ensure the delivery of better value.

ACE’s Transport and Mobility Advocacy Group, made up of a variety of large and small consultant engineering businesses, also recognised better transport systems lead to better businesses, connectivity and even better health and wellbeing - and are key to unlocking other ambitions for the country, from regional development to levelling up.

We have publicly called for the Integrated Rail plan to be delivered in full – including HS2 – to realise significant economic and social benefits.

It is now vital to get all the key players around the table, talking about how we can deliver the much-needed and transformational HS2 project as quickly and efficiently as possible, to reap all the great benefits it has the potential to bring.

Greater collaboration required

ACE has long called for greater collaboration between those working in the transport policy space.

We specifically recommend reforming ways of working within the Department for Transport, to deliver an integrated approach to transport nationwide, bringing together policy specialists from across the sector.

The rise in inflation is a global problem, so how does the industry allow for that or deal with that on an ongoing basis?

The answers can only be found by increasing collaborative approaches to these issues and where HS2 is concerned, we should use the time we now have to reflect on good practice and plan to make the next phase even better and more efficient.

There needs to be a much longer-term view of how we plan the nation’s infrastructure and a shared understanding across all political parties, if we are to make progress when it comes to our major infrastructure objectives and the long-term prosperity these have the potential to bring.

The more HS2 and other significant infrastructure projects get delayed, the more we are hampering the recovery of Britain’s economy and the levelling up agenda.

Stephen Marcos Jones is chief executive of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering and the Environment Industries Commission (EIC).

If you would like to contact Sarah Walker about this, or any other story, please email sarah@infrastructure-intelligence.com.