Major national decisions such as backing the injection of £43bn into HS2 seem to be made ad hoc

Robin Nicholson

The coalition determined to reduce overlapping and contradictory regulations, which is good if difficult, but also decided to abolish regional planning in the form of the Regional Development Agencies. RDAs did need reform but not abolition, as the present lack of response to flooding makes all too clear. Surely we do need a layer of planning between the local and the national?

Faced with the partial devolution of Wales and Scotland and the impending vote on Scottish independence, this begs the question of what is the “national” interest and who decides what the nation thinks? UK politics seems to be what “they” do at prime minister’s question time, a shouting match that successfully diverts us from the total control by the Treasury and its untouchable executive.

HS2 is a brilliant example of someone deciding that it was ‘a good thing’

Treasury cost-benefit analysis of HS2 has been shown to be flawed (yes we all do work on trains) and the Tories are upsetting many of their core constituencies through which it will pass; so who did decide that HS2 was a good idea and where was this strategy debated? Where is the vision of which it must be a part? 

The Edge, a multi-disciplinary think tank of construction professionals, of which I’m a member, has been discussing the need for a framework for establishing a national plan beyond the five-year political cycle. We do not have the time or skills to write the plan but we are interested in debating why, in our name, someone decided to invest £43bn in a railway to reduce the time it takes to get to Birmingham by 10 minutes when it is already one of the fastest journeys in the land? Why HS2 rather than invest that £50bn in, say, insulating our worst housing and thereby reduce the waste of heat and improve many people’s lives?

HS2 is a brilliant example of someone deciding that it was “a good thing”. Of course, it may well be and has already caused the whole civil engineering world, dragged down by the global recession, to swing into action. One member of The Edge has read all the HS2 documentation and marvels at the detailed engineering and the scope of the environmental impact analysis but can find no discussion of its role in our national future.

The same can be said for many issues such as the money the government has spent tinkering with the NHS instead of grasping the difficult political nettle of closing a large number of inefficient hospitals, increasing local services and investing in public health programmes for diet and exercise. We urgently need a discussion about what would make a framework for a national plan so we can debate such major investment programmes.

The Edge proposed that Jane Davidson, who wrote a National Plan for Wales when she was minister for the environment and sustainability, speak on this at The Ecobuild Debate Can Democracy deliver sustainability? Come and join her in the debate at 12.00pm on 4 March.

Robin Nicholson is a senior partner of Cullinan Studio and is convenor of the inter-disciplinary construction industry think-tank, The Edge

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