Big infrastructure projects bring big opportunities

Words:
Hugh Pearman

Whether or not HS2 proceeds, its preliminary work has generated good things

Let’s think big. Let’s move away from this or that bit of architecture and consider what is the greatest spur to new building: physical infrastructure. Make a track from somewhere to somewhere, a line across the landscape, and at its nodes and intersections, in its curves and crevices, buildings appear.

We’ve seen this since Roman times: the bridging points across the river which became the place to pause, militarily and domestically. At one such place those points became London and Southwark, with Westminster on another island to the west. Later canals and railways duly generated their junctionvilles. In the 1990s the places chosen for the Jubilee Line extension stations were in the same habitable zones the Romans and native Britons knew: Crossrail follows the pattern. Today the virtual leads to the actual: most motorway and major road intersections now physically display the ever-huger built outcomes of the online economy. Martin Pawley’s Big Sheds prophecy has come to pass.

Whether or not the present government cancels the HS2 railway project following its review, a huge amount of preliminary work has been done. A swathe of buildings around Euston Station has been demolished to make way for the much-enlarged station and new lines. Excellent blocks of council housing, paid for by HS2, have been built further north in Camden to replace those being demolished to widen the tracks. If you follow the course of the line up through the Chilterns and into Birmingham, numerous worksites are active, properties have been bought, utility diversions are under way, yards prepared for earthmoving kit. It has already created lots of places to build. If it proceeds, in the area around the Curzon Street terminal in Birmingham alone it will generate 4,000 new homes, 600,000m2 of commercial development and new cross-city public transport links. 

 

Make a line across the landscape and in its curves and crevices, buildings appear

You could solve the housing crisis in time-honoured fashion by dotting such routes with new or expanded settlements. And it’s better than what usually happens which is bypass suburbs to market towns – an excuse to build lots of low-density car-dependent new housing estates. Better examples are promised by, for instance, the new spine road and revived railway through the ‘Oxford-Cambridge corridor’, which could also be called Greater Milton Keynes. Public transport connectivity is key. We are in a climate and biodiversity loss emergency: leave such places to the lowest-common denominator volume housebuilders and nothing will be done to tackle this.

And after (or instead of) HS2? HS3 of course, now ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’. This is intended to finally provide the capacity and speed between the great Transpennine cities, from Hull to Liverpool. With it comes the planned 50 million tree Northern Forest, and with both comes huge opportunity to build well, and to address the north-south post-industrial economic balance. 

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Big infrastructure investment that leverages everything else. An optimist says: Utopia is within our grasp. A pessimist replies: money, politicians, nimbyism, inertia. Well, we can hope.