Hunting white elephants across Europe

This is a guest article by Mike Geddes, who also writes for HS2 the Regional Impact.

Sunday 7th December is a day of action across Europe against white elephant projects such as HS2 so here are some notes about some research which looks at common features of such projects and the opposition to them.[1]

Diane Robert, a French researcher studying in Sweden, has identified over 80 such socially useless and undemocratically imposed megaprojects across Europe (and of course there are many more globally). As well as high speed rail projects, they include roads, airports, dams, pipelines, fracking, nuclear projects and mines. What unites them is that they face opposition movements that go beyond NIMBY struggles to wider concerns about their social value.   Robert notes that there is a systematic tendency to underestimate costs and overestimate benefits of such megaprojects.

Robert also suggests that such white elephant projects are closely connected to neoliberal ideology according to which market principles should govern not just the economy but all spheres of life. Transport projects are an example of this when they are designed so as to generate and maximise profits for investors and development interests in big cities. But investors need governments to force the projects through, to make it seem as if they are in the national interest, and to take some of the risk.

These projects are functional to another agenda, … Theirs is an agenda that envisions infrastructure as an asset class, functional for speculative investment that has nothing to do with the real needs of millions of people. The intervention of public actors is key in guaranteeing investments that markets would not have otherwise considered financially-viable. It is a market that is not free at all but paradoxically duped by state intervention and functions only in the interests of finance capital, while passing on eventual losses to the collective” .[2]

 Robert uses a biological metaphor to describe the opposition to these projects – rather than functioning like a tree, which can be destroyed by cutting a single trunk, they are like a ‘rhizome’ – a complex network of roots which if broken in one place can spring up in another. This is of course an appropriate description of the opposition to HS2, consisting of multiple local groups and several loosely connected national organisations. Like a rhizome, each node in the network feeds from its surrounding ‘soil’.

Some of these opposition movements in Europe, including participants from STOP HS2, have joined forces in the ‘Forum against Unnecessary Imposed Mega Projects’ (UIMP or GPII in French). The Forum is a space to exchange information and ideas. It meets annually, networks via social media and undertakes specific roles such as lobbying the EU in relation to its TEN-T high speed rail programme. [3]

One of the key benefits of the Forum to us in the UK is as a channel for information about the weaknesses and criticisms of HSR on the other side of the Channel. Let us hope, as Robert does, that it will not be long before there are more cancelled megaprojects like the Eurovegas scheme in Spain which can encourage the rest of us. Let’s make the white elephant an endangered species!

Mike Geddes


[1] download Diane Robert’s paper here

[2] Cited here:

Large infrastructure to overcome the crisis? by Elena Gerebizza and Antonio Tricarico p2.

Original in

More than Bricks and Mortar: Infrastructure as Asset Class: A Critical Look at Private Equity Infrastructure Funds by Nicholas Hildyard

[3]Here is one blog on a UIMP Forum meeting

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