It should go without saying that any new infrastructure should have the largest impact on those living within its immediate vicinity. It would, let’s be honest, be a giant waste of money to build a new road or railway line if the locals weren’t being benefited. Yet all too often these large infrastructure projects, particularly those originating from the top echelons of government, have a history of silencing local voices.
One such example of locals being excluded from the decision-making process can be seen in the plans for the High Speed Railway 2.
Not only has the project already been denounced by a 2006 joint report for the Treasury and the Department of Transport, which instead argued for the upgrading of existing rail routes, but 17 local authorities lining the vast majority of the Phase 1 London-Birmingham route are also ardently opposed to the project. These councils, which collectively represent 3.2m people, are using everything at their disposal, from legal challenges to petitions, to put the brakes on long before the first train has departed.
One would think that governmental overruling of local authority opposition is perhaps the result of a larger majority of the general public backing the plans, but alas. Of the almost 55,000 respondents to the initial consultation on HS2, 58 per cent did not feel that a high speed rail network would provide the best value for money for enhancing rail capacity and performance. Less than 30 per cent felt that it would. Despite this, the first phase received parliamentary approval in February last year and surveying work has begun.
This same top-down approach can be seen with the proposed Oxford-Cambridge Expressway. This ambitious road-building project is part of a wider scheme to encourage economic development and, most importantly, house building across the “Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford arc”.
According to proponents, the Expressway is vital for the building of a further one million homes by 2050. But once again, the inhabitants of these regions are not being consulted on the issue. In December last year, Oxfordshire County Council carried a motion by 49 votes to five, with one abstention, criticising the lack of public consultation on the “need for the road or the local impact of any particular proposed route.” Last month the “preferred” route was confirmed by the DfT but there still has been no consultation.
By omitting public input, a vital opportunity to catch any potential oversight is missed and money is misspent, with big projects in under-invested regions dropped in favour of ones nearer the capital. Almost symbolically, on the same day the parliament voted in favour of the third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport, a move hugely opposed by local residents, the government rejected the Swansea Tidal Lagoon, which had significant backing from the Welsh government.
But this is hardly surprising when you consider that between 2012 and 2017, London and the South East, regions home to just 32 per cent of England’s population, received almost half its total public spending on transport. And with the new runway and the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway on the horizon, the next five years are predicted to similarly favour the area.
A government required to actually listen to the public when it comes to infrastructure investments is a government more likely to distribute wealth fairly. If democracy played its part in these decisions, government ministers would not only be able to act on valuable local knowledge but would also be encouraged to look further afield than the capital and its surrounding regions.