A Backbone for Britain

An ambitious proposal has been put forward by architectural firm Foster’s. finds out how it could revolutionise the North’s economy

All photos courtesy of Foster and Partners

All photos courtesy of Foster and Partners

The world famous architectural firm Foster and Partners has recently launched a typically ambitious and comprehensive plan for a two part addition to Britain’s transport infrastructure that they are hoping will transform the nature of UK industry.

‘The Spine’ forms stage one. This is a high-speed rail, energy and data network spanning the length of the country and connecting the UK’s disparate ports to create a transport infrastructure perfect for bolstering the industries of the North, letting them access the markets of Europe, and vice-versa.

The Thames Hub is the name given to the other part of the plan put forward by the firm. Thames Estuary land will be reclaimed, allowing a new airport and high-speed rail centre, and a second Thames Barrier generating enough to power 250,000 homes.

Huw Thomas, an architect and the leader of the proposals, tells me, “I’d characterise it by saying, on one hand, we’re a very densely populated island which means that if you put some infrastructure in it touches a lot of people very easily. On the other hand, […] getting infrastructure in is incredibly difficult. So if you can do it, there’s massive wins, but actually being able to do it is a serious challenge.”

The plans have the potential of achieving what historic developments have failed to make a reality – the true integration of North and South

“If we can get infrastructure in, if we can connect our deep sea ports – Liverpool, Felixstowe, New Gateway Port Southampton – they’re some of the best ports in Europe. What we don’t have is linkage between them. They’re owned by different companies, they’re private. They’re owned by the Chinese and people from the Middle East; there’s a whole mix, and they’ve attracted a lot of investment – but they’re not connected. So if you try to trade it’s incredibly difficult. Couldn’t we put in place something which actually unlocks a logistic network internally within the country, and ties us in directly to global trade?”

The option at the moment? “We don’t have the benefit of the Rhine, or the Ruhr, so you end up going on the A14 in a truck.”

This is Foster’s & Partner’s vision, “inspired by the lessons of nineteenth-century pioneers” according to Lord Foster. The orbital rail network allows direct transport from the Thames Estuary to the midlands and the south. The plan is to bring northern cities into touching distance with international trading centres like Rotterdam and Antwerp, with high-volume and high-speed freight capacity on a line that not only connects Europe to Felixstowe, London and Liverpool and on to the rest of the world, but also avoids the congestion of cutting through London.

The plans have the potential of achieving what historic developments have failed to make a reality – the true integration of North and South.

An artist's impression of the Thames Hub

“Take the railways. The railways were built in competition. They were individual lines, by different developers, who were racing to capture the biggest market of the day: London. So they’re arterial, they come from the manufacturing areas, from the northern cities, from the agricultural zones, into London. And they don’t do anything other than that. It was just about supplying London. It wasn’t about taking anything out of London back. It was just money that travelled back. And what that’s left us with is an enormous bottleneck. It just sucks in economic activity. If you can break that bottleneck, you can let all of those regions connect to each other.”

And it’s not just regional discrepancies which need rebalancing. Since the last election, there has been a growing concern that British manufacturing needs a competitive boost. Does the UK economy need rebalancing?

“We should definitely be increasing our own industry with regards to the global economy, and that’s very much what this is about. It’s a rebalancing so that we’re not just consumers. We need to make, as well as consume. The history of the country is as a trading nation. We were the first global trading nation, that’s what we have always done. We are not just a nation of shopkeepers.”

Despite dire economic forecasts and more talk of austerity than grand architectural projects, Thomas seems to have a lot of faith in the potential of British industry. This is characteristic of Foster’s approach. From building water pipelines across entire countries, to reclaiming tens of thousands of square metres to create Asian super-airports, the company has a knack for finding opportunities for bold and transformative additions to infrastructure that, as has been the case in their projects in the Middle East, can set the ball rolling for powerful economic growth. He dismisses any comparison to the grand industrial and architectural projects of the Victorian age:

Lord Foster: heading the team behind the plans

“Yeah, people get a bit carried away with it and say that. The reality, you know, building the new Thames Barrier, it’s about the same as building a nuclear power station. And we’re going to have to build 8-10 new nuclear power stations. And nobody’s really fazed about that. Building the orbital rail is [equivalent to] two and a half nuclear power stations. Is that such a big deal?”

The government has been reluctant to commit funding however, only approving the concept in November after previous refusals, but making no promises on spending. Some have expressed doubts that, in the current economic climate, the necessary investment is available. But Thomas insists,

“We’ve done all this on the basis that there is no contribution from the public purse. It needs political leadership, it needs political will, it needs political commitment to, in certain areas, looking at some of the regulatory frameworks, and regulatory reform”.

And this is where the optimism of Foster’s is in danger of straying into naivety. There is complex politics surrounding their plans. Much of the budgeting for the project relies on effective government regulation of insurance firms – crucial in allowing the prime land that will be freed up in the Estuary to be capitalized upon.

On top of this, the full potential of the ‘Spine’ for rail freight to make it commercially viable will not be realised until of the rail network market is put in place. I ask Thomas if he recognises this difficulty.

“Typically when we work in developing markets a lot of the infrastructure’s not in place, so you’re looking at creating new infrastructure to support development. Here, you’re working with existing [infrastructure], so you’re looking at all the pressures on existing infrastructure; what needs to be rehabilitated, what needs to be changed, what needs to be rebuilt; you don’t have so much of a free hand.”

“The government needs to say; what do we need to do to make [the Thames Hub] attractive for the private sector? The airport can leapfrog our competition. Nobody else in Europe is proposing to build a new airport. What they’re doing is adding capacity to Frankfurt, Charles de Gaulle, Madrid. In a way, 20 years from now they’ll have the same problems we’ve got with Heathrow. We can leapfrog right over them and we can say to the world: you want to invest in new capacity? This is the only place in Europe you can do it.”

Artist's impression of the New Thames Barrier

Environmentally as well as economically, Foster’s claim to possess the far-sighted view that has made their previous projects so successful. The documents proposing the Thames Hub and Spine describe the benefits of having a technologically advanced energy network tied to the spine.

“The creation of new power sources is an opportunity to create a comprehensive and efficient delivery system. Equally, the Marine Array can benefit from the existing investment in the London Array wind farm – both could be transmitted through the same network.”

The investment in nuclear, wind and hydropower renewable energy can only be viable with an infrastructure for distribution, and the spine provides electricity transmission, in combination with the a “smart” network, which cuts waste by responding precisely to demand. Britain has been waiting for regulatory or market shifts to tip the balance and start investment in renewable energy creation, competitive with Germany and other ‘green’ European countries. The opportunities that the Spine provides could be the required nudge, not to mention taking strain off government subsidy of renewable energy.

However, I questioned Thomas on the apparent hypocrisy of an eco-friendly development that at the same time encouraged many more international flights creating tonnes of CO2.

“Aircraft? Absolutely. They are polluting in terms of carbon emissions, nitrous oxides, sulphides, all of the issues. But they’re a relatively small part of global emissions. They’re a couple of percent. it’s something you’ve got to look at. And it’s something people are looking at in terms of engine efficiency and new fuel types. Those benefits may be reaped later on. Are we going to stop people flying by curtailing access to runways? No. Can we actually make an efficient airport so that landing and takeoff operations are more efficient so you have less emissions? Yes. Whatever happens going forwards in terms of aviation in the EU, there are legally binding carbon limits now – the polluter pays. If aircraft are landing in the EU then they have an obligation to offset the carbon emissions.”

Again, this feels a little too optimistic of the power of governments’ regulation, or at least a denial of responsibility on Foster’s part. And perhaps this is fair. Thomas and his team have created a proposal as far-reaching as the industrially conservative British economy will bear, and built in the capacity for renewable electricity generation on a realistic scale for our growing demand. On an architectural level, the Thames hub and the Spine are part of a fantastic and ambitious plan that would set the UK apart. Socially, this project could be the answer to the rebalancing of inequalities between north and south.

“You’ve just got to think – where would York be? And the thing we’ve been really focusing on is that as the world starts to invest, what’s going to drive it? What’s going to drive their investment decisions? Well, access to markets is absolutely critical.”

“They’ll start looking for connectivity; well, we can provide that. They’ll start looking for stable energy, and we can provide that. We can create here the best inward investment location in Europe, and that’s being true to our heritage.”


  1. 2 Jul ’12 at 3:28 pm

    Strawberry Frappe.

    amazing stuff.

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  2. Agree with Strawberry Frappe.

    Awesome vision; comprehensively set forth in a great article!

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  3. Where I live we have HS1. Fantastic idea, potential to cut commuting time had the potential to be a big boost. However when my dad asked how much a season ticket was for his work they said it was close to £10K for the year. He still takes the car. It will just expand the commuter belt for London not take investment north, it will serve to bring in bodies from the North to the South East and back again, nothing more.

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