WHEN I worked at Number 10, I led a year-long project for the then Prime Minister on our national transport infrastructure, working with a team of officials from the Department for Transport and the Cabinet Office.
We identified clearly that the UK, a pioneer of transport infrastructure in the 19th and early 20th century, had fallen way behind. In the previous 50 years, we had invested a far lower share of GDP on our infrastructure than other leading countries.
Our work demonstrated that, again and again, governments of both major parties had cut back on planned capital spend whenever a national financial difficulty arose.
As a result, the UK had by far the poorest road and rail infrastructure of any developed country. Few of our decision-makers have ever worked in the real economy, I am sorry to say, and they have scant understanding of modern business and of why fit-for-purpose, globally competitive infrastructure is so essential.
Today, business relies on people with advanced professional, specialist and technical skills: financial, strategic, digital, logistical, data science skills and many, many more. They often work for just a few months, on a project basis.
Such skills are barely ever available locally in sufficient number. So many people at every level in modern business travel long distances to work, some daily and some weekly, up and out early on Monday, back late Thursday, home-working Friday.
At the same time, goods, products and parts of every possible description are distributed urgently at every hour of the day, to every corner of the land.
Strategic roads, lamentable though they are in the UK, are by far the most important part of our transport infrastructure. However, rail matters too, and our rail network has long been a disgrace.
We simply must create a long-term, 20 to 30-year plan, not only for effectively linking the huge metropolitan areas of the North to one another but also for linking them and the great Scottish cities to London.
Beyond that, we must address lateral travel right across the UK. Manchester and Leeds are 40 miles apart, but it takes over an hour by rail to travel between them. Norwich is 206 miles from Liverpool; the train journey takes five and a half hours, travelling at a snail-rail pace of just 37 miles per hour. Someone leaving London on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner to New York at the same time that Norwich fans left for their opening match of the season against Liverpool just a few weeks ago would have arrived 17 minutes before them.
France opened its first high-speed rail (HSR) link from Paris to Lyon almost 40 years ago. Japan, Spain and France all have advanced HSR networks now around 1,800 miles in length.
China has built an incredible 11,000 miles of high-speed rail in the last six years alone. This is our global competition. Currently, the UK’s only high-speed rail link, from Folkestone to St Pancras, is a measly 67 miles long. How embarrassing for our nation is that?
If HS2 survives its current scrutiny, we will still lag far behind other countries, albeit with a less shaming 400-mile HSR network all of our own.
Whatever the project, it must of course be run efficiently, at least possible cost and with real environmental sensitivity.
We would all agree on that, but only those who have never themselves managed a large, complex project can barefacedly protest when unexpected difficulties arise or when honest attempts to identify the full cost of a project prove flawed.
Beyond that, those self-same critics often show no appreciation at all of the difference between revenue and capital spend—the latter an investment to have an impact over many decades, perhaps centuries.
Work on the West Coast line was started 200 years ago. What a return on investment that has proved; it has paid for itself over and over again.
HS2 is a vital foundation of our future rail infrastructure and should be supported wholeheartedly. We should run the project as efficiently and as cost-effectively as we can.
But we should also hold our nerve and, Brexit or not, in respect of our national infrastructure we simply must regain Britain’s one-time boldness and ambition from centuries past.
John Birt is a cross-bench peer, former BBC director-general and ex-aide to Tony Blair. He spoke in the House of Lords on HS2 – this is an edited version.