Just because London’s newest line in benefiting the economy does not mean another mega scheme will do the same

Simon Allford

The new year has started with a bang. The prime minister has proclaimed the economy is booming and even the most jaded of doubters agree that things are at least at take off.

For construction, 2014 is already proving to be the year of the big price hike and infrastructure is seen by all as a key driver of sustained recovery. Crossrail (the infrastructure lobby’s golden boy)has, in the context of its long gestation, entered the end game and as a result London is enjoying a triple uplift. Construction traffic is easing and people are more understanding now that they can actually see the small spikes of building appearing above ground (proof positive that the vast yet invisible icebergs of construction below are in fact real and will soon be useful).

There is a major race to acquire and redevelop the few remaining sites adjacent to the stations (which are now described in terms of the numbers of people they will soon disgorge into often previously isolated hinterlands). And with the stations completing, construction of the “over site developments” that they have called into being can commence. In that context, the “exorbitant” Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) is almost acceptable, even to those unable to avoid paying it! Even fear of CIL is having a positive, if passing impact, as swathes of planning applications are being brought forward to beat the deadline.

Investment in rail infrastructure should still be reviewed on a case by case basis

And it is not just London that is benefitting. Ever increasingly money is beginning to flow to the urban centres beyond, where much needed regeneration takes place. Sites in London are scarce so proximity to London will often do. So we are now inhabiting a strange virtuous circle of supposedly related events that keep cranes on the skyline, consultants and contractors busy and clients happy. And this is all down to a Keynesian model of spending. What’s not to like?

Well firstly this ignores the fact that much of the recovery is down to the fact that money from around the world continues to flow into Old London Town for other reasons. Not least its stable even static system of government and its relatively transparent legal system. Thankfully those who understand macro economics advise that this investment lifeline will continue for a decade at least. So Crossrail’s success should not be allowed to blind us to the fact that investment in rail infrastructure should still be reviewed on a case by case basis.

And the case for HS2 in particular has little relevance to Crossrail. HS2 is far too slow in coming forward, thus blighting significant tranches of London. Indeed if it ever does get going it will then release too many sites, probably at the wrong time in the economic cycle. Thus both devaluing London and stopping dead the regeneration of outlying cities. And, while connectivity to London is key for any other UK city, so is connection to the Internet. Train travel is time travel back to a world free from distraction so a few minutes more or less really makes no difference.

That the law of unforeseen outcomes has favoured Crossrail does not mean it will do the same for HS2. And I can assure you I write all this uninfluenced by the fact that in 2014 I anticipate restarting a major development located over Crossrail while another key project remains stalled by uncertainty surrounding HS2. Who said consultants are focused on their own well being?

Simon Allford is a founding partner of AHMM