How failing to tell an engaging story of national ambition cost us dear

I’m no expert in politics, but I do think it was extraordinarily brave of a Prime Minister to tell an audience in Manchester that he was cancelling a flagship investment in Manchester, writes Steve Wooler, CEO of BWB Group.

Nor am I a specialist in assessing risk. But it’s just possible that a decision to cancel a project on cost grounds when it’s already part way through might well cause contractors to push costs up next time they're asked to tender.

What I and everyone else at the common-sense end of the spectrum can see very clearly is that no economy can pause, review or cancel its way to higher growth.

There’s been plenty of criticism of the decision to cancel HS2 north of Birmingham, and of the fundamental contradictions behind the justification for it. On a personal level, I feel as angry as Sir John Armitt about the decision to sell-off the land reserved for HS2, which smacks of nothing more than the bitterest of scorched-earth policies.

But as an industry full of committed, qualified engineering professionals, we also have to ask ourselves just how we got here. How did a project that should have been seen as a strategic investment in economic growth, with a planning framework to support it, end up becoming a victim of tabloid fodder and a pawn in a political game?

As an industry, I’m afraid we have to shoulder some of the blame for that.

 A few years back, one our senior politicians suggested that people had had enough of experts. I’m not going to dismiss that as cheap sentiment because it plays to a widespread view that people are taken for granted when big decisions are made. And having heard a former head of HS2 tell Northern leaders years ago that the vital phase 2b eastern leg would be at risk unless they clearly articulated grassroots benefit, I think our senior politician had a point.

So we have to learn some lessons from the HS2 fiasco. A project at that scale is not a zero-sum competition between bid consortia: it’s a flagship for the engineering and built environment industries that should be a catalyst for skills development and design and engineering innovation, a showcase for project management expertise, and proof that the UK industry can deliver on a big stage. A national flag-waver for the very best of engineering, in other words.

I don’t think any of us can pretend that’s the way it played out. While there were commendable efforts to tell stories about skills and engineering innovation, they were drowned out by noise related to planning wrangles and cost increases, and the steady descent of the project to the status of political football.

This should never have been allowed to happen. This is storytelling on a national stage and it should have been treated as such - a national campaign to excite and involve future generations in a new transport backbone that would open up opportunities across the regions for decades to come. An artery that would pump new life into neglected parts of the Midlands and the North. A signal that post-Brexit Britain had big ambitions to invest and grow.

Most of all, projects like this should be poster children for the visionary power of British engineering to change people’s lives for the better.

We should have told stories about why this was necessary: the need to bring a 19th century transport network up to 21st century standards; the delays and congestion that make life a misery for commuters around Manchester; the glacial pace of the train from Birmingham to Nottingham; the shameful lack of decent connectivity across the North East. And we should have pushed harder for the whole project to have started in Leeds or Newcastle rather than London.

The industry also needs to start taking engagement far more seriously than it does now. I have heard government, local authorities and major consultancies emphasise just how important it is to engage with communities, but what I see in terms of policy and solutions is lip service: box ticking that generates data but not connections or consensus among the communities who are affected both positively and negatively.

This is something that we obsess about as a business to the point where BWB group has invested heavily in a sister company, Deetu, which has developed community engagement to a granular street-level, where people are listened to and projects are explained in plain English rather than technical jargon and virtual engagement websites. Anything less just isn’t good enough when we’re promoting projects that will impact on people’s lives in all sorts of ways.

When a government cancels a flagship national infrastructure investment, it is an admission of failure. For it to have happened part way through construction is a devastating indictment of the inadequacy of our strategic economic planning. 

If we don’t make a case for the power of engineering, and the role it plays in unlocking growth and improving people’s lives, no one else will. I’m not ashamed to be part of an industry defined by expertise, but we need to apply it in a much more engaging way. Never again should we allow ourselves to be portrayed as amateurs.

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