In this 50th anniversary year of APM, BBC presenter Evan Davis was interviewed for APM’s Project for the outside view on all things project, not least how they have the power to transform the social, economic and cultural life of a country.
Davis, of BBC’s Newsnight and Radio 4’s Today programme fame, is the current presenter of BBC Radio 4’s daily news programme PM, and is also well known as the presenter of BBC1’s business reality show Dragons’ Den and Radio 4’s weekly business discussion programme The Bottom Line.
A high bar for public value
He spent the early part of his career as an economist before becoming the BBC’s economics editor, so it’s inevitable that part of his interest in megaprojects in the UK is around the value they bring, and their costs to the public purse. “I think we should demand of the people planning projects that they have a high bar for public value; that we do not want to waste scarce construction resources, public money and the design and other capabilities of our country on white elephants,” he tells Project.
“We don't want to waste public money, so we should be demanding and that means cost benefit analyses and all the conventional tools of the appraisal of projects. [These] are absolutely important and society can’t give up on those, and the Treasury quite rightly says to people ‘we're not just going to throw money at stuff because it looks great’”, says Davis.
Take a transformative legacy into account
And yet, he does believe that some megaprojects should be judged by other measures of value – and success. “We do need to have some vision for the shape of the nation, and sometimes the cost benefit analysis - adding up the time savings for the existing customers on a train, for example - may not capture the benefits of something a hundred years hence or fifty years hence. “You have to be careful about being too accountancy focused on it. You don’t want to be too narrow,” he adds.
An interesting case study, he says, in High Speed 1 – the Channel Tunnel Rail Link – that enabled fast trains to travel from Kings Cross to the Channel Tunnel. “I think, in fairness, it was hard to make a cost benefit case for the London section of that”, he says. “It was the really expensive section but didn't save you that much time through East London and taking the train into King's Cross.”
“But then when you look at Kings Cross and the regeneration of St Pancras station itself - a very expensive heritage redecoration which was part of the High Speed 1 project, and you look at the development gains that accrue to that area… what would you say about that project and whether it's worked? But I think you would want to take all of that into account, and you couldn’t have taken that all that into account it beforehand. You couldn’t have known what the transformative effect on that area was going to be beforehand.”
He also mentions the spill-over effects for the rest of London of High Speed 1. “London, which is very crowded, has now got this new hub, this new village around Kings Cross. It accommodates more people and increases the so-called agglomeration gains of London,” he says enthusiastically. Agglomeration gains, he explains, are the “economics of nestling up close to each other; it is the learning from each other, and then benefitting from each other's presence.
“These are the things economists get excited about and so you might have said no to the Channel Tunnel Rail Link on a cost benefit basis but now you look back and say it was the right thing to do, because just it was a key part of what has happened to Kings Cross and the whole redevelopment there,” he says.
Megaprojects like HS1 – those projects with lasting legacies that have improved the way we live and work over the past 50 years – are a focus for APM this year, so don’t miss the summer issue of Project, out mid-June, which shines a light on some of the incredible megaprojects that have been delivered.
Read Evan Davis’ in-depth interview in the Summer issue of Project, where he talks about the M25, the Channel Tunnel and what the general public thinks about projects, and project professionals…