Britain has lost the will to build

When did building something as simple as a railway footbridge become such a Herculean task?

Lauren Smith

Topics Politics UK

In Britain today, it takes longer to put up a small railway footbridge than it did to construct New York’s Empire State Building. In the early 1930s, the Empire State Building took a mere 13 months to build. Theale train station in Berkshire, by contrast, has been waiting for its new footbridge for over a decade now.

Provided there are no further delays, it will have taken £9.5million and 13 years to finish upgrading the tiny Theale station. As the Telegraph put it, that’s ‘the same length of time it took to build Big Ben or, according to the Bible, King Solomon’s Palace’. Theale station was promised upgrades way back in 2011, with a budget of £1.25million. Since then, a new ticket office was finished in 2014 – but it currently lies empty and unopened, thanks to the unfinished footbridge. Theale’s MP, Alok Sharma, called it a ‘case study’ in British inefficiency.

The failure to build Theale station’s footbridge is of course a huge pain for local passengers. But it is also symptomatic of the wider infrastructure crisis plaguing Britain.

If constructing a small, prefabricated footbridge has become a seemingly Herculean task, then it’s perhaps no wonder that Britain’s bigger and more ambitious infrastructure projects are so often delayed and over budget.

Take the proposed Lower Thames Crossing. This new tunnel would connect Kent and Essex, if indeed it ever gets built. It has already cost over £800million – and construction work hasn’t even started yet. A whopping £267million was spent on applying for planning permission alone. That’s twice as much as it cost Norway to actually build the Lærdal Tunnel, the longest road tunnel in the world.

When it comes to infrastructure projects, British taxpayers get much less bang for their buck than the rest of the world. A study by campaign group Britain Remade has found that road and rail projects in Britain can cost up to eight times more on a per-mile basis than in Europe. For instance, the ill-fated High Speed 2 (HS2) railway line from London to Birmingham is estimated to cost £262million per mile. In contrast, the French managed to build a 200-mile-long high-speed rail line for just £46million per mile back in 2017. Similarly, the small French city of Besançon was able to construct a tramline for half as much as Britain’s cheapest tram project, Manchester’s Metrolink Airport Line extension.

Many of the delays and skyrocketing costs of these projects stem from our Byzantine planning system and its cumbersome environmental requirements. The UK’s National Highways has spent the past seven years developing and re-developing its environmental-impact statements in an attempt to prove that the benefits of the Lower Thames Crossing will outweigh the environmental cost. At one point, National Highways became embroiled in an absurd legal argument over whether or not it would be allowed to use one, instead of two, tunnel-boring machines – a move that it believed would save on time, money and environmental impact. Even now that the planning application is completed and submitted, there is no guarantee that the plans won’t simply be rejected by Whitehall – not least as there are fears that the tunnel might breach Britain’s Net Zero rules.

The recently curtailed HS2 project has produced pages upon pages of environmental reports, documenting each rare water vole and endangered newt that the rail line might pass by. In fact, much of HS2’s eye-watering budget has been spent on largely unnecessary tunnelling, which was implemented to appease local opposition. And when HS2 bureaucrats haven’t been busy filling out the mandatory planning applications and pond-life-tracking forms, they have been cataloguing the race, religion and sexuality of their employees to ensure adequate diversity. HS2 has also spent heaps of taxpayer money promoting Black History Month, Bi-Visibility Week and on paying its ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ managers triple-figure salaries.

This might all be funny if the consequences weren’t so tragic. If we don’t ramp up our infrastructure, Britain’s economy and our living standards are destined to stagnate.

We seem to have lost the will to build anything anymore. Our Georgian-era ancestors, who pioneered the first railways, are surely turning in their graves. In the case of Theale train station, passengers will be lucky if they get their long-awaited footbridge in the spring. As for the more ambitious Lower Thames Crossing or HS2, can we be certain they’ll ever be opened? Last year, the UK government disgracefully tried to make a virtue of its plan to scrap the HS2 leg from Birmingham to Manchester.

If we are to have any hope of getting the infrastructure we deserve, we will need to raise our ambitions and overhaul our absurd planning laws. We can’t afford to remain a world leader in bureaucratic inertia.

Lauren Smith is an editorial assistant at spiked.

Picture by: Network Rail.

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Topics Politics UK


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