There has been much government rhetoric this year on the potential building of ambitious new infrastructure to stimulate Britain's economy and make the country more competitive for the future. But, railway line High Speed 2 (HS2), which has already been given the go-ahead by Transport Secretary Justine Greening, and Thames estuary airport "Boris Island", proposed by London's mayor, have become issues of serious disagreement among the country's politicians - and people.
It's widely accepted that improvements to Britain's railways and airports are needed. Firstly, the country's railways are operating at full capacity and services up and down the country are suffering due to pressure on the ageing lines. Furthermore, with high speed rail lines springing up across Europe and Asia it's arguably time for the UK to upgrade its network too. Secondly, London's reputation as an international aviation hub is suffering because Heathrow can no longer compete with larger and more advanced airports on the continent, and the airport doesn't have the capacity to operate flights to the world's emerging market economies, meaning the UK could miss out on important business.
But, at a time of national austerity and a large deficit, one of the key questions being asked is whether the UK can afford to invest in new infrastructure (although private investors will likely foot a portion of the bill). Supporters say yes, because not only will the projects create jobs in the short- to medium-term, they will stimulate economic opportunity in the long-term. HS2, for example, is expected to cost £32 billion to build, yet the government predicts that the line will create £47 billion in economic benefits by reducing the journey time between London and Birmingham and boosting business growth in the North. Similarly, supporters of Boris Island argue that opening up London to direct air links with the BRICs would justify the £50-£70 billion spend needed to build a bigger airport. But critics of the proposals say the economic cases for both projects are flawed and dependent on overly optimistic forecasts of demand. Funding the projects will also push the deficit up, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for years to come. Consequently, some say money would be better spent by improving our existing transportation network, than by starting again from scratch.
Environmental issues also have a significant impact on the debate. In the case of HS2, the 140-mile track will cut through the Chilterns, an area designated as one of outstanding natural beauty, damaging both the environment and thousands of homes in its path. Unsurprisingly, communities close to the route and a number of environmental organisations, including Natural England, the Environment Agency and the Forestry Commission, oppose the high speed line. Ironically, Boris Johnson is against HS2 because of its environmental impact, yet his four to six runway airport would have a similar environmental cost. Although the airport would be built on an artificial island made from landfill in the Thames estuary, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) claims the airport would pose a risk to the natural habitat of wild fowl and wading birds. In addition, the airport would require the building of railway and road links to transport passengers, which would involve tearing up land in the area.
With the first phase of HS2 due to be completed by 2026 and a consultation on Boris Island planned for later this year, only time will tell whether these investments are truly worthwhile.