Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Railways and Houses

It's been a very busy summer planning for the new What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth. I've also been on leave and am now travelling for the third European meetings of the Urban Economics Association (free to join for all those interested in urban econ research). In short, I haven't had much time to keep up with the news.

I have, however, been enjoying the slow drip, drip, drip of criticism of HS2 (enough to make you wonder whether there is some sort of orchestrated campaign to have one high profile figure come out against it each week). John Kay good on this in today's FT (£):

"The carefully argued Eddington report showed in 2006 that Britain’s creaking transport infrastructure needs a multitude of incremental improvements rather than a few extravagances. Advocates for HS2 have had five years to make their case. They have failed. If it goes ahead, it will dominate the UK’s investment programme for the next two decades. It would be better if it did not."

Very much my own position as I have argued before in this blog. I discussed HS2 yesterday in a short interview for Radio 4's PM. Lord Greaves was making the case for HS2 and made two points which, while they may be true, struck me as very depressing. The first is that 'it's HS2 or nothing'. That is, if we scrapped HS2 the money wouldn't be spent on other smaller to medium sized schemes. Second, 'if we get HS2 then we'll get these other schemes because government will have to be seen to make HS2 work'. I find these arguments very depressing. The first is the threat I make to my small children when they are refusing to eat their dinner. The second suggests we should do a big, bad project first because that will force government to throw good money after bad. As LSE's growth commission argued, this is no way to make decisions about infrastructure spending.

Finally, on something different (planning for housing, not railways), I see that headlines concerning 'enough planning permission for 400,000 unbuilt homes' are making a comeback. I tried to pull apart these numbers a few weeks ago. You can read the nerdy detail here, but my basic conclusion is that the headlines are misleading because the statistics count everything on a site as until the very last house or flat is finished. Digging a little further, it seems that we might be slow to start compared to the US, but we don't appear to be particularly slow to build once started. I don't know why were are slow out of the blocks (although I wouldn't rule out issues around planning, building control etc). Regardless, the figures as they stand muddy rather than clarifying debate.