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When I’m not writing this column, I’m overseeing a once-in-a-lifetime infrastructure project of my own. As dust levels rise and bank balances drop, I’m determined to ease bedroom bottlenecks and improve cohabitation comfort, while maintaining the financial discipline required by my mortgage provider.

So I’m pioneering the world’s first Stair Saving Scheme (SoS). The value of my additional home capacity is not compromised by near-term reliance on alternative connection arrangements such as ladders or ropes. Thanks to the UK Government and their work on HS2 for inspiring this innovative solution.

The £100 billion high-speed rail is becoming the poster child for Britain’s infrastructure curse. Depending on who you ask, it’s too big, too expensive, or just done wrong from the start. Even its supporters (including me) despair. After canceling the eastern leg to Leeds, the government is considering scrapping the western leg to Manchester and ending the line at Old Oak Park outside central London. What good will remain? “Almost nothing,” summed up one person involved in its lengthy founding process.

The wider benefits of HS2 were never well understood or communicated. Faster trains mean shorter journey times. But high-speed lines should also free up capacity elsewhere to provide more local services or freight and form the backbone of other improvements. Now, as political will wanes, the congested capital may not have easy access to HS2, while the part of the country that should benefit most – the north – faces being excluded entirely.However 2020 Oakville ReviewThe basis for HS2 approval stated that “a complete network is required to realize the benefits of investment”.

Indecision is both a symptom and a cause of Britain’s infrastructure woes: everything Construction costs are so high. My colleague John Burn-Murdoch has looked at how rigid planning and NIMBY tendencies drive up costs, with rail projects, road lanes or motorway bridges costing far more than in most other countries . Another problem is the UK’s particular inability to develop long-term plans for its infrastructure, debate them and stick to them.

In construction projects, dithering is inherently expensive. While everyone is thinking things over, the bills keep piling up. The contract must be re-signed. An industry rule of thumb is that one-fifth of a project’s capital cost is spent on design and development. Every efficiency or change has the potential to undo past work and incur more design costs, especially for something as complex as HS2.

Political sucking and an unwillingness to commit to medium- to long-term stable spending are particular problems.Britain lags behind on rail electrification, with costs soaring to as much as three times initial budget due to lack of consistency Sam Demetriou From campaign group Reinventing Britain.Germany Have been moving forward hard 200km of lines are electrified each year; UK mileage rebounds from nearly 600km in some years to zero in others.

Lamenting start-stop investing is nothing new: 2010 Financial Report An investigation into “excessive” infrastructure costs found that “a lack of visible and continuous workflow pipelines” was one of the biggest issues that needed to be addressed.

One knock-on effect is in terms of skills in industry and government. Despite efforts such as the Major Project Leadership Academy, the ability of civil servants to oversee large-scale infrastructure development remains questionable, meaning greater reliance on consultation. Without a job pipeline, companies have no incentive to invest in training and career development. When there are no more jobs to go on, specialist skills, such as those taught at the welding school established for Hinkley Point C nuclear construction, decline. Know-how is not transferred from one (preferably standardized) project to the next.

Broken pipelines have fragmented the UK industry, as the 2010 report pointed out again. Companies don’t build greater internal capabilities or invest in advanced technology when their largest customers are unstable. Balfour Beatty, the UK’s largest construction group, had revenues of around £9bn last year, dwarfed by French or Spanish contractors such as Vinci’s €62bn or ACS’s €34bn.

Noble Francis of the British Construction Products Association said that large contractors employ only 14% of the UK construction workforce, 86% of which are small and medium-sized enterprises. “Fluctuations in infrastructure demand mean that contractors’ business models are not based on the most efficient way of working, but on coping with volatility, which means subcontracting costs, activities and risks to smaller specialist contractors,” he said .

If I were to start another personal infrastructure project, I would learn from my current experience. For decades, it was not obvious that Britain could say the same.

helen thomas@ft.com

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