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Fri April 03 2020

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Think tank scoffs at plan for Northern Ireland – Scotland link

11 Mar A University of Strathclyde think tank has poured cold water on the proposal for a multi-billion-pound bridge or tunnel to link Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The money spent on the Northern Ireland - Scotland link could buy about 14 Queensferry Crossings, says the Fraser of Allander Institute
The money spent on the Northern Ireland - Scotland link could buy about 14 Queensferry Crossings, says the Fraser of Allander Institute

“It is perhaps a sign of the times that political stories, which wouldn’t even have seen the light of day in the past, gain traction,” says the blog post by the Fraser of Allander Institute.

The government is apparently considering the proposal – which the institute feels the need to point out is not an April Fool – for a 21-mile road over the Irish Sea.  “It won’t deliver the economic boost some claim, it isn’t a priority, it would go to the wrong location, it wouldn’t be consistent with climate change objectives, and the money could be better spent on other things, says the institute. “Apart from that, it’s a cracking idea.”

The post pointed out that “Somewhere, engineers will be debating the technical challenges of building a bridge over deep water, or a tunnel across a difficult underwater terrain. Geographers will be working out the average windspeeds that traffic will be able to withstand. And munition experts will be discussing how to avoid Beaufort’s Dyke. But before this gets any further, hopefully the government will ask their civil service economists for some advice.”

The institute says that those hoping that building “a bridge (tunnel or giant catapult even)” will automatically be a catalyst for faster economic growth will be sorely disappointed. Many infrastructure projects displace existing activity from elsewhere and create deadweight, it says, adding that there is little international evidence to suggest that there is always a causal positive link between infrastructure and growth. “Build it and they will come, is sadly not the case.”

Well-designed and targeted investment that helps to unblock barriers to connectivity can have an impact on growth, it adds. “But on a list of top 10 infrastructure priorities in Scotland (and the UK), this won’t be one of them.” Much higher priorities concern improving how people move around cities, better linking-up major centres of economic activity (it still takes 2.5 hours to travel between Aberdeen and Glasgow), sorting out major infrastructure weaknesses and providing sustainable solutions for many rural communities that remain poorly served by public transport.

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It also points out that the proposed bridge or tunnel won’t actually link up centres of economic activity. “Instead, travellers will arrive in rural Dumfries and Galloway or Argyll, with a 90+ mile drive to the central belt (at least a further 2.5 hours). This won’t improve connectively to the point where any hope of clustering or agglomeration economic effects could be expected to take hold.”

Furthermore, people driving long distances doesn’t stack-up with the target of a transition to net zero by 2045.

And this is even before the enormous emissions costs required to build the tunnel or bridge are considered.

One of the first things that economists are taught is to look at the ‘opportunity cost’ of a project, says the post. The opportunity cost isn’t the financial cost of building the bridge but the benefits that could be gained instead from spending that £20bn or so on other projects in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It points out that “£20bn would be equivalent to over 14 Queensferry Crossings (with some change left over to fix the problems of ice); 25 M74 extension equivalent road projects; or 400 large Cal Mac ferries (at the original price). £20bn could be far better spent.”

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