A letter from Nuno Gil, Professor of New Infrastructure Development, to the Financial Times – Olympics can offer few lessons for HS2 planning:
Sir, John Kay misses the point on this one (“The Olympics were a great party – but there was no gold for the beancounters”, Comment, November 27). You cannot really put in the same category planning for the Olympics and High Speed 2.
Planning for the Olympics is a game that belongs to a league of its own. The International Olympic Committee unilaterally dictates all the rules of the game, picks and chooses the winners and losers, keeps the upper hand on many design negotiations, but, alas, does not supply the cash. There are way too many countries – and politicians – interested in hosting the games, and only one brand owner. This is about sports, but ironically, it is not about a level playing field.
Planning for HS2 is more similar to Crossrail and other megaprojects that require conventional planning consent. By the time the scheme leaves the parliamentary process, there is no reason to expect that promoters will not be able to have reconciled design, timescale and budget with confidence. Of course, this does not mean the budget will not evolve in planning. It will. The fact of the matter is that, in an ideal world, the promoters would never release single-point estimates in the early planning stages because they can only know how much things will cost after they finish negotiating the megaproject design through the political and democratic process. Many concessions and deals have to be made in order to beat off opponents who are competing for the same resources to do other things with equally ambiguous business cases.
Comparing megaproject final costs and early estimates without controlling for design evolution is like comparing apples and oranges. The argument that project promoters suffer from optimistic bias (i.e. are incompetent) or strategically misrepresent these projects (i.e. are crooks and liars) has long been a popular one. It is also hard to dismiss as it appeals to common conceptions. But it is time we shelved it. It has no scientific basis and has been a serious disservice to a serious public debate about megaprojects.