UK’s reputation on infrastructure on the line after HS2 delay announcement

Artist's impression of an HS2 train at a platform.

Following the announcement of a two-year delay for the flagship HS2 rail project, ACE UK CEO Stephen Marcos Jones says that the UK’s reputation for delivering major construction projects is on the line.

The UK Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) has issued a warning that the UK’s reputation for delivering large-scale construction and infrastructure projects is on the line, following the announcement of delays to the flagship HS2 project.

ACE, which represents UK companies who design, deliver and manage national infrastructure and the built environment, says that the UK government’s move is a “false economy” that also risks damaging the reputation of the sector.

ACE CEO Stephen Marcos Jones has called on the UK chancellor of the exchequer to reconsider the announcement that parts of the HS2 line between Birmingham, Crewe and Manchester will be “rephased” by two years, meaning that the line to Crewe may not be open until 2036 and Manchester not opening until 2043.

Jones acknowledged that large-scale infrastructure projects like HS2 are naturally subject to market fluctuations and that plans would always be subject to changes at different stages. However, he called the decision an “absolutely false economy” claiming the significant delays would inevitably lead to higher costs in the longer term – as well as severely hampering efforts to ‘level up’ the north of England.

“While we are delighted that work is continuing on the current core route between Old Oak Common and Birmingham, it is deeply disappointing that the vital HS2 benefits of connecting more quickly with the north are being delayed,” he said.

Delays will affect real people

“Long experience of postponement of other major infrastructure projects invariably leads to an increase in overall costs as well as an overall loss of benefits – the problems of regional disparities across the UK remain acute and this decision to delay construction will have a direct impact on the urgent need to level up the country. Levelling up is not an abstract notion – it affects real people – and this delay will lead to reduced opportunities for huge numbers of people,” Jones said.

“HS2 is a transformational project that will bring great benefits and the more it gets delayed, the more we are hampering the recovery of Britain’s economy and the levelling up agenda,” says Stephen Marcos Jones, CEO of ACE UK.

Given that the HS2 project is also being viewed on a global stage, ACE’s CEO believes that the delays also risk damaging the UK’s international reputation for delivering large-scale infrastructure projects. “What the rest of the world thinks about our ability to deliver major infrastructure projects is impaired by this major setback. Having to announce such a delay could hamper industry confidence and cause reputational damage to the UK,” said Jones.

In its 2023 policy manifesto, ACE, whose members contribute more than £15bn to the UK economy and over £570bn globally each year, recognised that current and future governments face a huge challenge when deciding how to invest in transport, whilst simultaneously working to decarbonise it and ensure the delivery of better value.

ACE is calling for the UK government’s integrated rail plan to be delivered in full, including HS2, to realise the economic and social benefits the projects will bring. Following the announcement of delays to HS2, Jones said that it was vital to get “all the key players around the table, talking about how we can deliver this much-needed project as quickly and efficiently as possible”.

“HS2 is a transformational project that will bring great benefits and the more it gets delayed, the more we are hampering the recovery of Britain’s economy and the levelling up agenda,” Jones said. “We need to make sure we keep delivering on projects such as this and refrain from stopping and starting them, with all the longer-term costs this will add,” he said.

A more integrated approach to transport is needed

ACE UK has long called for greater collaboration between those working in the transport policy space. It specifically recommends reforming ways of working within the UK Department for Transport, to deliver an integrated approach to transport nationwide, bringing together policy specialists from across the sector.

Jones also addressed the impact that the global rise in inflation has had on HS2 and other infrastructure projects. “How does the industry allow for that or deal with that on an ongoing basis? The answers can only be found by increasing collaborative approaches to these issues and we should use the time we now have to reflect on good practice and plan to make the next phase even better and more efficient,” he said.

Jones said that there needed to be a much longer-term view of how the UK government plans its infrastructure and also a shared understanding of the way forward across all political parties. “The government and policymakers working in the transport and infrastructure sector need to have a major rethink about how major infrastructure projects are planned, scoped, delivered and promoted to the public,” said Jones.

Click here to download ACE’s Manifesto 2023, which outlines the organisation’s policy aspirations for 2023 and beyond.