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4 December 2020

Britain’s bridges are falling down: why is the UK so terrible at infrastructure?

Simple and cowardly short-termism is a major reason for the UK’s dismal performance. 

By Jonn Elledge

One of the most exciting things that happened to me when I was a baby train nerd was the arrival at my local station of leaflets about Crossrail. This, a helpful map informed me, would be a sort of super-Tube line, by which suburban trains would continue past Liverpool Street, to Oxford Street, Paddington and points west. 

I understood, I suppose, that this wasn’t going to happen overnight. But I would still have been stunned to learn that, by the early Nineties, such a scheme had already been discussed on and off for around half a century; that it wouldn’t receive government approval for another 15 years; and that, a decade after that, roughly a month after I selected a flat based in part on its proximity to one of the new Crossrail stations, its opening would be delayed from “next December” to “some time, possibly?” At the time of writing, the line has yet to open, but word is that it should do so in the first half of 2022. We shall see.

That the UK government is not very good at infrastructure should come as no surprise to anyone who has been to, say, France. But the result of an investigation published in Thursday’s Times might still come as a shock. 

Figures obtained from Highways England, the government-owned company in charge of motorways and trunk roads, showed that, out of around 9,000 bridges and large culverts (basically, huge pipes for rivers) in the network, around 4,000 “showed evidence of defects or damage that may significantly affect their capacity”. As of April 2019, 858 had at least one “load-bearing or otherwise crucial” section in “very poor condition”. Given everything that has happened in the last 20 months, it is probably safe to assume that matters have not improved since.

[See also: Why everyone – and especially Greens – should still support HS2]

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The 2018 Genoa disaster, in which a road bridge collapsed in northern Italy, killing 43, is a reminder of how bad the consequences of failing to maintain a road bridge can be. Thankfully, there’s little suggestion of anything that dangerous here (most of these bridges will be much, much smaller). But Highways England has warned that reducing capacity – closing lanes, banning heavy goods vehicles – may be necessary to prevent further damage. It’s not merely that the UK is bad at improving its transport infrastructure. It’s so bad at maintaining it that things are getting worse.

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The agency, incidentally, attempted to block the freedom of information request that uncovered these figures, on the grounds that they could be useful to terrorists – and not, say, that they showed it to be extremely bad at its job.

This is merely the tip of an extremely large iceberg. East of Docklands, it remains ludicrously difficult to cross the Thames, despite decades of unbuilt proposals. Until January, Leeds-Bradford was the largest metropolitan area in the EU without any form of metro whatsoever; the only reason that changed is that Britain is no longer in the EU. Birmingham makes do with a single, paltry tram line and traffic as far as the eye can see, and one of the strongest arguments for building HS2 is that, if we scrap it and try to come up with something better, it’ll delay the capacity improvements we need by another 20 years or more.

Why is the UK so bad at this? One reason may be that the problem is self-perpetuating: if, instead of building scheme A and then scheme B, you wait a decade and then try to build both at once, you’ll find that both are now a lot more expensive than predicted because they rely on the same pool of labour, plant and expertise. Another may be that our national love of house price inflation has fuelled both higher land prices and government nimbyism: investing in new transport infrastructure will cost a fortune, wind a lot of voters up, and probably won’t open until the government after next. Why bother?

But I can’t help but feel that a big part of the problem is simple and cowardly short-termism. It’s easier to cut capital than current spending: changes to the latter will be felt immediately, while those to the former may take years to show. Once enough years have passed, though, you wake up to find that half your bridges and culverts are falling to bits.

Rishi Sunak is not a complete coward. Despite having a public reputation built entirely on handing out money, he’s talking up austerity with the zeal of a man who has not stopped to consider the consequences this might have for his leadership ambitions. And despite such talk, last month’s Spending Review did promise an increase in infrastructure spending, as well as a new national infrastructure bank to be based in the north of England.

[See also: How a national infrastructure bank could transform the UK economy]

One question is whether this is even close to enough to make up for decades of neglect. Another is whether it will be sustainable, if the Chancellor continues to insist that we should all be terribly worried about the national debt – even though it is possible at present for the government to take out long-term loans that are all but interest-free.

So perhaps I’m over-complicating things. Perhaps the reason the UK has such bad infrastructure is much simpler. Perhaps it’s because of the Tories.