Sunday, January 15, 2012
Advance Planning or Blind Panic?
One of the criticisms we, the voters, have of our politicians is that they tend to be rather myopic in their planning, rarely seeing beyond their statutory term in office. There have of course been three leaders during the last thirty years who have sought to leave a legacy and to some extent have done so to a greater or lesser degree: Mrs Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair all looked beyond their time in office. In John Major's case he wanted to leave a railway system the nation could be proud of and I think it's fair to say, and most Conservative supporters I know agree, it was a disaster, both financially and unfortunately in the case of Potters Bar, quite literally. We now have a railway system where the only financial risk takers are the public who pay through high fares and even higher subsidies.
It was with this history of short-termism in mind that the announcement of the HS2 was greeted with such a lukewarm reaction this week by almost everybody except the editorial in The Times and by Estate Agents. The latter because for every five minutes saved on a rail journey to London house prices increase by 5%. We have proof of how that works in this area, once the Jubilee Extension had been completed and journey times via Waterloo to Gotham City had come down so house prices from Lymington, Brockenhurst and points in between up to Winchester started to rise.
I have to admit the announcement filled me with mixed emotions, the initial reaction was "Yes," we've actually decided to proceed with a major infrastructure programme that both Labour and Conservative parties have been keen to embrace since it was first talked about when the old King was still alive. My second and third reactions were, "Why?" and "How Much?"
The "Why?" was simply a gut reaction to the much trumpeted factoid that journey times from Birmingham to London, and presumably in the opposite direction as well unless, because Brum is further up the map, it really is uphill, by between 27 and 42 minutes which would somehow contribute to additional jobs being created. Apart from in the construction industry for the term of its building where would these additional jobs be created? Anybody who has ventured onto our railways recently, having first mortgaged their childrens kidneys, will be aware of the fact that anybody using the rail network for work begins work the moment they take their seat, presuming of course they can get one something I understand is rare of the line between Euston and Manchester. So where is this mythical time wasted whilst travelling?
The biggest concern of course is the cost. If you look at the small print it is quite evident that this is a vanity project to rival the Dome, something which has actually become a huge success since placed in private ownership. It is the Conservative's doing their bit for the green lobby, being seen to be investors in public services and showing the Lib Dems that they can be environmentally aware, and if it all goes tits up they can say it was Labour's idea in the first place. To get anywhere near the projected return on investment over its estimated useful life (hey, guess what I do for a living) is going to mean fares at eye watering levels which will mean that the only people able to support it will be those working in London. It will not empower Birmingham at all, it will make London even more powerful financially, there won't be any greater incentive to relocate to the Midlands because of HS2 than there has been to relocate to Ashford because of HS1. I'm not alone in my concerns about the financial implications, Allister Heath who comes from the other side of the political fence to me summed it up on Wednesday with his six reasons why it is a mistake.
It does seem slightly bizarre to me that having spent the last decade encouraging people to work from home, via improved Internet connectivity and tax breaks, that the Government of the day should be encouraging more people to travel to work by rail.
Of course going back to my initial reaction we should applaud the Government for taking this course but it does slightly smack of Blairism to me. The big gesture when really a lot of smaller gestures would work better although I think most people accept that the current railway system does not offer itself to simply being upgraded. Although it has to be said that in light of the public expenditure disasters that occurred on Labour's watch the estimated £10 billion spent on getting the scheme to the planning stage seems like small beer.
It is interesting to look back through the archives at how the whole plan was viewed when Labour were in power, just to make sure that people's opinions haven't changed wildly simply because of a reaction to the times, many of the financial and environmental concerns were noted two years ago.
Posted by Paul at 1:16 PM