North Channel bridge plan debunked by economist
A LEADING economist who served as an adviser to a former Stormont minister claims money spent on a bridge to Scotland could be deployed to much greater effect elsewhere.
In a methodical debunking of the proposal to bridge the North Channel, Ulster University's senior economist Dr Esmond Birnie notes that, while the project is not a fantasy, the arguments used to justify the proposal are generally flawed.
The British government has said it is looking at the bridge's feasibility but both the Stormont infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon and her Scottish counterpart Michael Matheson have criticised the plan for being too costly.
Dr Birnie, who was a special advisor to employment and learning minister Sir Reg Empey from 2007-2010, argues foremost that just because it may be technically feasible, that is not grounds in itself to pursue the project. He cites 18th century economist Adam Smith's example that "with enough greenhouses vineyards could grow in the Scottish Highlands".
"He (Smith) was trying to make the point that it was very doubtful in economic terms whether the astronomical cost would be justified – similarly, the bridge," he says.
In regards to the bridge being an "icon of British engineering achievement", the senior economist notes that Concorde and some aspects of the UK's nuclear power industry in the second half of the 20th century demonstrated a degree of technical prowess but were not commercially successful.
"In any case, civil engineering is a very internationalised activity – I suspect if the bridge were to be built there would have to be billions of pounds worth of imports of material, capital goods and expertise from Germany, US, Japan, China etc," the economist says.
In terms of its job creation, Dr Birnie believes the £20bn-£30bn projected cost of the project could "generate more jobs and achieve better social, economic or environmental outcomes" if spent elsewhere.
His riposte to those who seek to justify the bridge by pointing to the Oresund Bridge linking Copenhagen and Malmo is that it links two large Scandinavian cities, 45-minutes apart, which are thriving economic centres.
"The Scandinavian example shows how a bridge between two already rich sub-regions can make them even richer but there are other examples which show that bridges between two poor, peripheral, uncompetitive regions may not have much if any developmental impact," he says.
Likewise, comparisons with a number of typhoon proof, 20-30 mile bridges in China are dismissed on the grounds that controlled economies are good at delivering costly, prestige projects but less so at making the "complex range of advanced consumer goods that people actually want."
The UU economist rebuts arguments that a bridge might compensate for some or all of the Brexit costs to the Northern Ireland economy by claiming they are "not well thought through."
"If the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Boris Johnson's Withdrawal Agreement is to be applied it must be applied to freight movements NI-GB and GB-NI regardless of whether lorries cross the North Channel by boat or by bridge – the physical connection doesn't change that," he says.
"Presumably, a very large lorry park and inspection area would have to be laid out at Portpatrick. Of course, a cheaper transit over the Irish Sea might compensate for any frictions/costs generated because of Irish Sea checks but surely it would be better to keep those frictions as small as possible in the first case – rather than engage in a massively expensive exercise in mitigation through bridge building."
Dr Birnie welcomes the British government's feasibility study but suggests the cost savings to businesses who move goods to Britain would be relatively low.