Rebuilding Britain Part II: Rational reasons for HS2

In the second of our series of articles exploring key initiatives which will shape Britain’s future, we examine the way we take big infrastructure decisions

In his book ‘The Righteous Mind’, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt gives a compelling explanation of the challenge we all have understanding each other and the world around us.

We are, says Haidt, a combination of elephant and rider, the elephant being our powerful emotions and the rider being our struggle to rein in our emotions and act rationally.

The subtext is that this struggle is usually the reason why people who would otherwise get on with each other sometimes find themselves divided – often by politics.

Whilst it’s popular to think this is a recent phenomenon, politics has always been dominated by the tendency to sell snappy headlines rather than explain hard choices.

Vanity or sanity?

It’s a strategy that cuts both ways. Snappy headlines can make those hard choices sing, though they tend to store up trouble when it gets complicated. They can also twist big decisions out of shape, painting them as upfront costs when the price of failing to act becomes apparent only in the future.

When we get to that future, we’re usually asking why no one had the sense to take that big decision all those years ago. We were an elephant then; now, with the consequences in front of us, we’re a rider.

There’s an obvious example confronting us right now. It would help solve multiple problems which impact daily on people and the economy. But it requires a substantial investment and it will be years before we see the benefits.

The emotional case against is that it looks like an expensive vanity project which we can’t afford. That the money should be spent elsewhere. And in any case, the past few weeks tells us it will be unnecessary because…technology.

The rational case is that it’s better to invest in opportunity than fund failure. That people would be wealthier and healthier if we did. That regions like the Midlands and the North will grow faster.

Japan’s Bullet Train, launched in 1964

It’s wrong to dismiss emotional objections, not least because ignoring emotions risks inflaming them.

Is it a vanity project? Aspects of it might have been. But it has its origins in solving a costly problem that’s been building up for decades and that problem is now front and centre of the case.

Is it unaffordable? No. It involves capital expenditure, which is borrowed over time and paid back over decades. The rough maths of affordability are that it equates to 0.2% of the UK’s economic output over the life of its construction.

Shouldn’t we spend the money on something else? We can’t – it’s all borrowed. If you don’t build it you won’t borrow the money. So there would be no windfall from not doing it.

Ironically, one of the suggestions is that we should give the non-existent pot of money to the health services instead. It’s ironic, because some of the health conditions the NHS has to deal with can be traced back to the lifestyles people lead because they can’t access opportunities related to education and employment.

Shockingly, there is also evidence that deprivation linked to lack of access to opportunity also leads people to die younger.

And what about that tech issue? The tech we’ve been relying on over the past few weeks has been around since 2003, when Skype was launched. Or 2007, when the first touchscreen smartphone appeared. So far, our experience of stuff like this is that it augments and improves what we do, not that it replaces it.

If we want to talk tech, then we should also mention one of the biggest technological challenges of all: reducing our reliance on a fossil-fuelled world of congested roads. Congested alternatives make that harder.

The UK’s nasty habit

We’re getting to the nub of what this particular big decision is now. It’s whether or not we build a new rail network to take the strain off a choking Victorian original. We’ve called that new network HS2.

Which leads to one final, rational point. We’ve developed a nasty habit in this country of not doing big infrastructure. Of looking at price not value. Of using sticking plaster to deal with the human consequences…especially in the Midlands and the North. It’s one of the reasons why parts of the country look and feel left behind.

We used to lead the world in rail transport. As the 20th century progressed, we were overtaken. The most prominent example took place in 1964, when our government was considering the first Beeching report, which recommended slashing the size of the rail network as the great car economy began piling on to motorways.

That same year, Japan launched the first high-speed rail service in the world, the Shinkansen – or Bullet train. It was set up to boost economic development in Japan’s regions.

Fifty-six years later, Japan continues to invest in high-speed rail. We’re still arguing about the decision.

If we’re genuinely going to rebuild Britain and level-up our own regions, it needs to be the rider, not the elephant, who drives this charge.