The makings of an unhelpful debate: lessons from HS2
It need not be this way. The poor quality of this debate is a reflection of an institutional vacuum in the UK that afflicts areas of policy where projects extend beyond parliamentary cycles, and require cross-party support and coordination.
Infrastructure projects of national significance are a prime example. Building sustainable, cross-party agreement requires a sensible debate about the relative merits of different investment options. This involves pondering complex, risky trade-offs often with profound, long-lasting economic effects. Rigorous, independent assessment of the evidence about these effects and serious consultation processes can influence the quality of debate and lay the foundations for social and political consensus. Deliberative processes of this kind are a hallmark of high-quality democracy, and they live off the strength of the institutions that support them.
Some countries known to perform relatively well in terms of infrastructure investment have these deliberative processes embedded in the DNA of their political system e.g. Denmark and Sweden have political systems with multiple institutional veto-players that incentivise cross-party dialogue and consensus.
Some other countries, whose political systems place instead a greater emphasis on flexibility and accountability, have opted for setting up bespoke institutions to support those deliberative processes e.g. Infrastructure Australia, Infrastructure Ontario and New Zealand’s National Infrastructure Unit.
The UK political system is in many respects similar to this latter group, except that it still missing institutions that can act as catalyst for consensus.
We discussed how these institutions could look in our work with the London School of Economics Growth Commission. The Commission proposed the creation of an Infrastructure Strategy Board – a permanent, independent body that would draw on the expertise of academics, industry and government departments to provide expert advice to Parliament on infrastructure issues. It would aim to offer politicians a sound analytical framework on which to base their choices. Once a political decision had been reached, an independent Infrastructure Planning Commission would place community engagement at the heart of the planning process and ensure the benefits of development were shared amongst those who stood to lose from individual projects.
Suffusing the political debate with sound technical analysis would make clear to politicians and the public the effects of different investment options and the likelihood of benefits materialising. It would expose gaps in existing evidence and areas where there are uncertainties that are difficult to overcome with the analytical tools we have at our disposal. This analysis would open up assumptions about methods to challenge and debate. As a result, the potential for evidence to be used partially and strategically to support partisan positions on specific projects would be curtailed.
Short of such an institutional redesign, controversy around HS2 and other similarly large infrastructure projects will have a long, happy life. Sensible political debates that lead to sensible policy making that can withstand public scrutiny will remain the exception.