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The choice between resilient infrastructure and HS2

Tuesday 29 July 2014. I’ve just been told that tomorrow I’m to be unveiled as the new infrastructure secretary; a bold statement of intent from prime minister David Cameron that infrastructure is vital to the UK’s prosperity and therefore at the heart of government thinking.

But strangely I’m troubled. Because the prime minister has told me we’ll be making a major funding announcement at my unveiling tomorrow.

We are going to announce that, following a thorough, targeted review of the resilience of our infrastructure to extreme weather, it is clear that we need to act. Tough choices have to be made.

The effect of postponing HS2 on our future prosperity would be crippling

And so, we will say, High Speed 2 (HS2) is being postponed. Work will stop with immediate effect, and the funds allocated to it for the remainder of this Parliament and the first two years of the next will be put to work rapidly reviving and then building vital flood defence and infrastructure improvement schemes.

Regrettably it will mean that construction of HS2 will now not begin until 2020 at the earliest.

But the £170M-plus that would have been spent each year developing it will now be put to much better use.

First, £300M will be spent reviving and building the Lower Thames flood defence scheme, unveiled in October 2009 but quietly forgotten since. It is vital, we will say.

And then £150M will be spent diverting the Great Western Main Line away from the coast at Dawlish, ensuring that Devon and Cornwall are never again severed from London.

And then we’ll do something - frankly still not sure what - about the Somerset Levels. Do we announce that?

Or will we announce that following a thorough, targeted review of the resilience of our infrastructure to extreme weather, improvements are needed, but that these improvements must be carefully planned before work can proceed?

And that, while careful consideration was given to reallocating funds from other projects, we have to hold firm.

Yes, we will say, there have been calls to postpone or even axe HS2. But the effect of that on our future prosperity would be crippling. Business needs it. The UK needs it.

And yes, it means the people of Staines, Datchet, Wraysbury and Walton-on-Thames will remain at severe risk of flooding for the foreseeable future. But help, advice, and grant funding will be available to make their homes more flood-resilient.

And yes, it means no diversion of the Great Western Main Line. But contingency measures will be put in place, including the formalising of an agreement with airlines to run extra flights in times of rail disruption.

And yes, it means no solution for the people on the flood-prone Somerset Levels, but we don’t know what that is anyway. So do we announce that instead?

Dear diary, what do you think? Help!

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s interim editor

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