Thursday, 16 May 2013

HS2: the opposition shows all that's wrong with Britain

The myriad of opportunists who have jumped onto the anti-HS2 bandwagon will doubtless relish the "conclusion" put forward by the National Audit Office that the business case is shaky.  Leaving aside the fact that the bean-counting mentality that the NAO demonstrates has not saved us from the follies of PFI, privatisations that have resulted in transfers of wealth from taxpayers to speculators and the ludicrous marketisation of public services, this is another piece of political grandstanding that shows that British central governance has a rotten core.

Whether or not HS2 will deliver precisely the benefits, to precisely the costs put forward today, in 20 years' time is a moot point.  Economic forecasting is often only one step up from Mystic Meg, but because it is encased in equations and, generally, put forward by consultants in expensive suits with bills to match, tends to have a mesmeric effect upon Ministers and civil servants, while at the same time being easy to unpick and attack if you find yourself ranged on the other side of the argument.

What one looks for from politicians is leadership and, occasionally, relying on gut instinct.  We appear to live in a country which, despite the marginal maunderings of the right, is prepared to maintain massive expenditure in wasting people's lives (blighted education, the benefits culture and the economic  deserts that afflict many parts of the country), spend unquestioningly on the National Health Service's pseudo-markets rather than primary care, while maintaining the delusion that the nation is a Great Power with the responsibilities and resources to match.

Yet all these would be much easier if politicians had the guts to admit that to generate growth, sustainably, and to reduce the entitlement culture, the government's prime function is to underwrite investment in the infrastructure that permits the appropriate and expeditious development of private-sector economic activity.  The mixed economy remains a reality, yet there remains a fetishisation of any private-sector funding - which as I have constantly argued is a chimera and a lie perpetrated as a means of reducing the headline rates of tax and bribing crony capitalists.

The Coalition's main economic failing has been this complete lack of vision.  At a time when long-term interest rates have been lower for a longer period than at any time in economic history, and when Gideon's personal goal of maintaining a credit rating has been scuppered by the lack of stimulus in the economy, this would have given the opportunity to set out an infrastructure plan, drawing on pension funds and other investment sources to finance bonds, which would have transformed transport, utilities and the social and economic cohesion of the British Isles.  Instead we have a bunch of selfish chancers whose main aim appears to be delay and criticism of the government - cutting off other people's noses and spiting their faces through acts of cretinous short-termism.

This is not solely a Tory failing, nor is it a Labour one.  This is endemic - the country never anticipates, preferring to respond when the crisis hits.  Nearly a quarter-century ago, the Tories accepted the findings of a study which recommended that London's growth and prosperity would be served by construction of Crossrail and upgrading Thameslink by the start of the third millennium.  Thirty years from its publication, they will be delivered - at greater expense and having wasted nearly two decades where infrastructure improvements could have contributed to wider society.

Our European partners appear to have a generally more sensible view of the potential of infrastructure to generate growth: Paris now has the equivalent of five Crossrails while high-speed rail is extending across western Europe.  Britain (and London) aren't as different in their needs and solutions as the tabloids would wish to portray.

HS2 may not be the optimum project to improve connectivity to the regions and nations, nor, alone, will it transform local economies.  However, it is there.  An alternative would delay increasing capacity for another decade.  The debate cannot be had on its own - as regional policy is about more than just railways.  There is the current heat and light being generated by the fool Johnson about London airport capacity, forgetting that the vast majority of people do not live within easy reach of the Thames Estuary, and that non-London airport capacity is already there and not being exploited to take pressure of existing runways.

For once, even some Tories are making the right noises - but the window of opportunity is low.  There is a risk that HS2 will be sacrificed to appease the knuckle-dragging Eurosceptic cicatrices whose influence will loom large as Cameron tries to hang on as Tory leader.  This, with bean-counters and self-styled fools such as the Taxpayers Alliance baying at their heels, will be a litmus test of whether good government will be sacrificed on the altar of useless party expediency, and whether Britain has got beyond about 1830 in its attitude to the fabric of the nation.

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