Monday, 28 January 2013

Let Them Dig Ditches

 HS2 train
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.


Blue Eyes said...

I agree it's bonkers. There is some figure as to the proportion of Heathrow capacity which is used by UK internal flights, a large chunk of them are to Edinburgh. HS2 only goes halfway to Edinburgh. Fail.

It's going to open in twenty years time. That rather lacks in ambition. Plus all the stuff which might happen because there is a faster line from London to Manchester/Leeds won't happen for another twenty years. Fail.

The backstop excuse is that we need additional capacity and it may as well be built to modern best practice standards. But we won't have the additional capacity for another twenty years by which time £80 for a seat will look cheap. Fail.

I thought the M6 Toll took long enough from drawing board to actually opening, but this is absurd! The M1 was built in about five minutes. What has happened to this blasted country?

Extremely ancient seafarer said...

By the time this project is completed (probably 7 or more years later then originally planned and at 3 times the originally estimated cost), it really will be a white elephant as the technology in use - no doubt not too dissimilar to today's - will be way out of date. It is entirely possible/likely that a completely different form of propulsion will be the norm in 2040. For example, Maglev and monorail development is forging ahead in leaps and bounds all over the world and such systems entail much less desecration and intrusion into the country lanes of olde England than the construction of a 500 mile (oops, 800 km) long, 100 ft (sorry, 30 metre) wide track which will require constant and expensive maintenance by gangs of labourers.

Happily, I shall be long gone by the time this excrescence joins the rusting windmills blighting our once beautiful countryside. I pity the next couple of generations who are going to have to foot the bill, on top of all the debt (and interest) our sordid government(s) have already imposed on them. One thing is certain: like the Channel tunnel, it will never ever pay for itself.

Electro-Kevin said...

It won't even be Dimitar or Gheorghe.

I gather that the route will be straight for the most part, in which case sophisticated Austrian machinery will be used rather than gangs of navvies.

Much of the money will go to lawyers and consultants.