Oh dear. I had been so confident back in June when I blogged that support for the Great Whitle Elephant Line was draining from the Treasury and the Cabinet. The Spectator is certainly the best weekly newspaper (NEVER to be called a 'magazine') in the English language, as its devotees know (and if you are not a subscriber or reader, you really ought to be). Its Political Editor, James Forsyth, is extraordinarily well-informed, as well as being of sound judgement. It normally gets these things bang on.
So it is a surprise as well as a disappointment to discover that the White Elephant fanciers have won the day, and the bottomless pit will be dug, from here to Brum and onward to Leeds and Manchester. As infrastructure projects go, it is a big'un. Bigger than the new airport we obviously need, which would be of so much more benefit than a superfast railway line taking over from a merely fast one.
There are plenty in the Cabinet who are wedded to the idea that public spending is a good in itself. They are wrong, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t hold sway. I accept the Keynesian principle that government can, and should, pick up the reins of the economy during a recession, in order to soften the impact. The problem here is that the project is not so much a painkiller prescribed for a single recession (or even a three- or four-year depression), but a huge weight chained to the ankle of the taxpayer for at least TWENTY YEARS.
Idle has run some numbers, so you don’t have to. The total cost is the equivalent of Exchequer income from £136bn (in today’s money) of corporate profitability, taxed at 25%. This has to be corporate activity which would not otherwise have taken place in this country, had it not been for HS2. Or, looked at from the employment perspective, it is the equivalent of 283,000 people digging ditches and building bridges instead of drawing their jobseekers’ allowance of £112 a week, for twenty years.
Remember, the viability of the line depends upon punters paying £80 for a one-way ticket to get to Birmingham (again, today’s money). This is for people on expenses, in other words, mostly service sector professionals and government employees (will there be a special BBC carriage for all those middle-managers whizzing between Broadcasting House and Salford Quays?)
I am all in favour of addressing the geographic imbalance of the economy, but I can think of a dozen things that would do more good than this. I think the Cabinet has gone ahead on the basis of jobs. But we can all see the flaw in this; who will work for less – Ron from Aylesbury, or Dimitar from Plovdiv? Kev from Doncaster, or Gheorghe from Bucharest? Given the state of the emerald isle, perhaps they will all be trumped by the O’Reilly clan from Wicklow.
This is a ditchdiggers charter. It has little or nothing to do with a credible business plan.