Adonis spells out UK’s pressing infrastructure needs

Tuesday 5 November 2013

The UK government needs to set up an independent commission to cater for the nation’s pressing infrastructural needs and must end the adversarial approach that worsens its short-term attitudes.

So said Lord Adonis at this morning’s Evolving London lecture at the Institute of Civil Engineers, part of a series of talks on the capital run by GVA.

Former transport secretary Lord Adonis said that the only proper vision envisaging how London should grow, with the whole gamut of infrastructural and planning issues that faced the city, was the Abercrombie plan of 1944. ‘That was a coherent and serious plan’, said Adonis, ‘and my thesis for this morning is that we haven’t had one since.’

Faced with a population that is projected to grow to 10 million by 2030 – London’s highest population ever – the capital needs crucial decisions made quickly on High Speed Two, Crossrail 2 and airport capacity, he said; radical improvements rather than the usual approach of seeking to marginally improve the status quo.

Adonis said we are ‘ducking completely’ what our long-term rail strategy should be, and that HS2 – which he was the chief proponent of under Labour – will solve a ‘capacity crisis. The line will link our five largest conurbations together in the process, and be preferable to spending billions on line upgrades which will not produce as many economic or capacity benefits. The UK needed to catch up with other countries such as Spain and France in embracing high-speed rail. ‘It’s the classic short term versus long-term view’, he said. ‘Patch and mend or think strategically.’ It is perfectly possible that politics could engulf HS2 but the problem will not go away, he added. Setting up an independent national infrastructure commission would improve a situation where governments make judgments in the national interest but which are always liable to be seen as partisan.

Crossrail 2 will similarly help reduce serious congestion north-south, whilst serving key regeneration areas such as the upper Lea Valley. And on aviation, Adonis said that a consensus should be built around the eventual recommendations from the Howard Davies report, or else London risks falling further behind other international airports and again losing economic benefits. The hub airport expansion scenario at Heathrow was perhaps more likely than building a new facility in the Thames Estuary, with all the associated infrastructure and transition problems in closing Heathrow that that would entail. But one of the most ‘chronic’ shortfalls facing London is the relatively few river crossings to the east of Tower Bridge. A new version of the Thames Gateway Bridge must be created and a decision made on other new Thames Crossings which could be funded by tolls.

But schemes like HS2 are prey to a deeply adversarial culture within government and a deeply risk-averse attitude within Treasury to publicly funded infrastructure, heightened by a project-by-project approach. ‘We don’t have to choose between HS2 and Crossrail 2’, said Adonis. ‘It is actually possible as a country to do all of these things together.’

David Taylor, New London Quarterly

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