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Jonathan Punter

| 21 September 2020

UK Economy, Technology

Jonathan Punter

Update Victorian innovation or full speed ahead on digital Britain?

After taking a break for the last blog (I know, you missed me...), I’ve been casting about for material for my latest post.

It’s hard to find any kind of subject which doesn’t involve the current unpleasantness in some way, shape or form. 

Indeed, my colleagues and I have been mulling over what the future beyond the pandemic might hold. And given our long-term perspective, the future in decades hence, rather than next year. 

For example, few would have foreseen the role (apart from the gimlet-eyed in the US military-industrial complex) that Nazi Germany’s rocket scientists would come to play an integral part in putting a man on the moon in the post-war era. 

Pragmatic or cold-hearted (you decide), the US matched the expertise to solve the defining challenge of the age. 

I think we are seeing a modern equivalent in the unprecedented, global collaboration of pharmaceutical companies in the search for a covid vaccine. This degree and speed of collaboration would have been unthinkable a few months ago.  

Iron road or silicon highway? 

But has the pandemic wrong-footed more conventional thinking in preparing the UK for life in future decades? 

For example, HS2 looks like an example of a project that, while years in the planning, has been utterly invalidated by the events of the last six months. 

After many years, HS2 is, we are assured, happening. Construction is under way for a new rail line which will knock half-an-hour from a journey, say, from Birmingham to London and will eventually also draw northern cities, the Midlands and the South closer together.  

But now that many of us, and probably the majority involved in business, have spent most of the year working online, watching as the day-to-day was transformed into the digital, has the pandemic also invalidated the earlier economic justification of this project? 

As this blog testifies, debate over the UK’s infrastructure is well-trodden territory (as it should be) but is this national pastime about to reach a new set of points? 

Online replaces train line 

The idea that the central benefit of HS2 means getting somewhere 30 minutes’ quicker has become almost quaint in a matter of months.

I am not alone in realising that because people are not having to travel physically for meetings, they are saving hours by using Zoom, Teams or the telephone. 

Another feature is those meetings are more focused and more efficient. I think everyone is getting down to business directly.  

And in our business that’s across the spectrum. Everyone from pension trustees and financial planning clients to investors and new joiners has seemed remarkably unphased by the shift to cyber communication. 

That’s not to say there aren’t improvements to be made or, indeed, that we don’t miss the spontaneity and energy of face-to-face contact and company but, by and large, it’s been a painless transition. 

Broadband bound? 

Given that this Conservative government is, on the basis of wealth transfer from public coffers to its citizens, arguably the most socialist in history, has Jeremy Corbyn’s (remember him?) manifesto promise of free broadband for all not only come of age but also resembles better value? 

Labour estimated it would cost £20bn to part-nationalise BT to provide internet-for-everyone. HS2’s latest cost estimate is £106bn, from an original price tag of £56bn.One of my colleagues, sometimes somewhat frank, wrote recently to his MP to register his view that “Only a cretin would believe that HS2 provides value for money”. In reply the MP (a Cabinet member) said “Cabinet collective responsibility prevents me from commenting on this matter”. Collective responsibility would not have prevented him from disagreeing with my colleague. The fact that he did not speaks volumes.   

In the end, public spending is predicated on the greatest good for the greatest number at the keenest cost (or it should be). 

On that basis, will history judge this as a moment when we were tramlined by the weight of existing obligation when being braver, by shifting emphasis and priority to finance national high speed internet coverage, to encourage, assist and enable our covid-weary nation to engage and innovate in the digital age might have delivered so much more. 

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The idea that the central benefit of HS2 means getting somewhere 30 minutes’ quicker has become almost quaint in a matter of months.

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