Spotlight falls (again) on the high cost of construction in the UK

The magazine New Civil Engineer (NCE) reports this week on a recent conference in Barcelona which highlighted the wide difference between the cost of infrastructure in the UK and on the continent. So it seems that the inflated 2006 estimate for the metric conversion of the UK’s road traffic signs may be part of a deeper problem.

The editorial in NCE on 6 October begins:

“Our costs baffle our European neighbours – and they baffle me”

The editor, Anthony Oliver, continues:

“NCE held its European High Speed Rail Summit in Barcelona last week – an event that highlighted the clear absurdities of the UK approach to the delivery of major public infrastructure compared to the rest of Europe.

Delegates heard back to back case studies on two examples of European high speed ambition which, frankly, left our European neighbours in the room with an air of bafflement, hilarity and outrage.

The first project was the new French Sud Europe Atlantique (SEA) TGV route between Tours and Bordeaux, the 50 year ‘design, build, finance and operate’ concession for which was recently let to a Vinci-backed consortium. As part of France’s ongoing high speed rail network, this 300 km line plus 40 km of connections is expected to be complete in 2016 at a cost of 7.6 billion euros (£8 billion (sic)).

Contrast this with the UK’s controversial High Speed Two (HS2), plans which were case-studied directly after.

Our two phase project plans an initial 180 km leg to Birmingham from London to be completed by 2026 at a cost of £18 billion. The second ‘Y-shaped’ section links Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds, adding another 380 km by 2033 for £14 billion.

Hence the reaction in the Barcelona conference room. If you are looking for an example of high cost UK infrastructure and slow delivery pace, look no further.”

And if you are looking for another, but smaller example, then how about the estimate published in 2006 by the UK Department for Transport (DfT) for the conversion of the UK’s speed and distance road traffic signs to metric? This estimate came in at about £1400 per sign, compared with the actual cost achieved in the Republic of Ireland (RoI) just five years earlier of about 140 euros per sign (£120 at today’s rate of exchange). Furthermore, this estimate was prepared over thirty years after the UK conversion was originally planned to start, so the slow pace of delivery appears not to be limited to UK high speed rail.

At the time the estimate was published, some argued that the conversion of signs in the RoI could not be compared to that on the more urbanised roads in the UK. But the editor of NCE has a few words relevant to this too:

“Of course one cannot directly compare the largely greenfield French SEA route with the highly tunnelled HS2. And there is clearly major cost in creating major new city centre terminals. But four times the cost and 10 years behind. Surely there is some mistake, asked the delegates.

They are absolutely right.”

So where does this leave the DfT’s 2006 cost estimate for road sign conversion? Clearly it is grossly inflated, even allowing for high UK costs, but we have known that all along. Will the current Treasury-sponsored investigation by Infrastructure UK (IUK) into the problem of the high cost of UK construction and related activity prompt the DfT to re-examine its figures? Metric Views suggests that you don’t hold your breath.

5 thoughts on “Spotlight falls (again) on the high cost of construction in the UK”

  1. £1400 per sign is roughly $2200 USD per sign, at the current approximate exchange rate of £1=$1.58. No wonder you call that inflated. I highly doubt that a new signpost, new sign plate, the installation of that entirely new sign, and removal of the entirety of the old sign and post would add up to that … unless you buy lunch for the work crews for each upgraded sign, too…


  2. Bill,

    I personally feel that the people who came up with the exaggerated costs of sign replacement are opposers of metrication and deliberately did this to assure metrication would never happen.

    To be really fair, an independent organization should examine their costs and determine if they are valid or not and if valid find an alternate means to bring about the change at a more reasonable cost.

    Back in the ’70s, Canada changed its signs very cheaply. They did so by applying a stick-on overlay over the old number and adding the symbol “km/h” underneath. The only time a sign needed to be replaced if it was worn or damaged. Eventually the signs with the overlays were replaced with new ones when they naturally wore out.

    If you really want to accomplish something you can do it with minimum cost, but you have to want to do it that way.


  3. About 20 years ago, I remember noting the signs showing distance to my local airport had new distances stuck over the previous figures. This was in connection with the opening of a new improved road to the airport, thus reducing the distance. As you say, over time when these signs were damaged or worn out, they were replaced. But the stickers lasted many years without deteriorating. So that’s one element of the cost argument against metric road signs dealt with!

    Furthermore, in Wales, the UK tax payers subsidise the use of a minority local language which effectively means that every road with town names or instructions on to be printed not only in English but also Welsh. This must cost an absolute fortune and is used by fairly small percentage of the population, all of whom talk English. So if we can have the many millions of pounds used to support Welsh signposts transferred to metrication of road signs, that would be a great step forward.


  4. @kPa

    You are almost certainly right that the inflated estimate was deliberate. It was published to close down discussion on the subject of metricating road signs by exploiting the one common weakness of public perception, namely that it may be sensible to do eventually but bound to be prohibitively expensive.

    There were two main reasons why the DfT figure was so high:

    (1) It was based on an overnight change with no attempt to look at alternative strategies (e.g. the approach taken in Ireland where distance signs were changed gradually and then speed limits at the end). The one envisaged was quite the most extravagant possible.

    (2) There was a price hike with something called ‘optimism bias’ which jacked it up by some 45%. This was not properly explained or justified.

    If I were more cynical I’d say that the UK’s reputation for ridiculously high cost estimates with this type of project is evidence of serious corruption. Getting the exchequer to set aside funds that are never actually spent in the purported manner!


  5. I think this is more to do with planning laws and different attitudes to development in the UK and in Europe. Our planning laws enable anyone affected to basically hold major developments hostage. That’s why HS2 is going underground when the sensible thing to do would be to bulldoze the houses. Europeans tend to be more accepting of major infrastructure projects and are less likely to oppose the project even if the line would directly affect them, and their laws balance more heavily in favour of the benefit of the masses than the preferences of the few.

    The other issue is the cost of land. Our land prices are way, way out of control. That makes both purchasing the land the line will run through, and paying the staff to construct it, much more expensive.


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