A recent survey from the CBI has put into stark perspective the challenges that major infrastructure promoters face in convincing an often sceptical public that the improvements they propose are needed and beneficial.
A major theme emerging from the CBI’s work is that the pubic wants its voice to be heard, even if that delays improvements. Another theme is that the public generally don’t believe there’s a problem with Britain’s current infrastructure, although there is more awareness of the limitations of infrastructure they see and experience, such as railways and roads. There’s much less awareness of invisible infrastructure such as sewers and electricity networks and therefore less acceptance that these networks may need improvement work.
For example, the CBI points out that the public do not believe that the lights will go out but also notes that one fifth of Britain’s electricity generation capacity will close over the coming years. I could add that last summer Transport Minister Stephen Hammond rejected any suggestion that the rail network might run short of electricity once Network Rail finishes its lengthy electrification programme.
The nub of the problem, reckons the business organisation, is that the public does not believe the narratives that governments and promoters provide. In its survey, conducted by Ipsos Mori, just 6% said they trusted ministers, with only 15% trusting the company building the project. Local media fared slightly better on 19% At the other end of the scale, 54% of the public said they trusted technical experts, who could be scientists, economists and others “with appropriate technical expertise” according to the CBI.
Those same technical experts should be the ones making decisions about whether to build key infrastructure. In the survey, 64% agreed with this while 22% thought politicians should make the decisions. This comes despite the public having a vote in electing politicians but no say in who the technical experts might be. The CBI points towards independent commissions operating in other countries, including Australia, the Netherlands and Norway. Here these bodies present the facts and the government’s options.
Yet, I can’t help thinking that as soon as an independent body recommends a course of action it ceases to become independent, certainly in the eyes of those opposing the plan. Politicians do not always agree with independent recommendations as the long saga into London airport capacity shows.
The CBI argues that promoters often concentrate on the wrong aspects of the stories they use to sell their projects. For local communities, benefits should be portrayed in local terms rather than pushing national reasons for a project. It’s worth looking at the answers to this survey question “What would make a difference to public support of infrastructure?”: 47% – The quality of life for local people in general; 44% – Local job opportunities; 37% – The local environment; 35% – Your quality of life; 22% – House prices in the local area; 21% – The national economy.
When it comes to forming views of projects, 42% said they would trust people like themselves, followed by 33% trusting local councillors, 28% trusting campaign groups, 24% their local MP, 19% local media and then 11% the company building the project.
CBI commented specifically on High Speed 2, saying: “After the route was revealed, public opposition to the scheme began to grow, as people living in rural areas that the railway would pass through objected to the noise and disruption that they felt it would cause. Other groups began to question the business case for the project as more negative reactions to HS2 surfaced. Reports of increased costs of the scheme led some think tanks, business groups and sections of the press to question the value for money that it provided.
“HS2 has since received support from the highest levels of government, with the Prime Minister, chancellor of the exchequer and secretary of state for transport all publicly arguing for the benefits it could bring. But too much of the discussion has focused on reduced journey times for business people travelling from London, and the overall impact on national GDP, rather than the specific benefits to individual communities such as the benefits to existing commuter services from reducing overcrowding on the West coast Main Line.”
For the Chilterns, HS2 does mean disruption as the line is built but it should also mean that the current line into Marylebone keeps serving local communities. An increase in trains on the West Coast Main Line led to some stations seeing reduced services in favour of long-distance trains. As demand keeps growing and without HS2, it’s entirely possible that more limited stop London-Birmingham trains will be introduced to the Marylebone line. Further Chiltern benefits could come from jobs as the proposed HS2 infrastructure depot near Calvert.
As the CBI says of its survey: “While some objections to development are inevitable, too often local communities oppose new infrastructure projects that could bring benefits, both locally and nationally. This is not about silencing NIMBYs or a vocal minority, but understanding that the most vocal supporters of a national project can raise objections when that project sits on their doorstep.”