• Government spends £250m on HS2 lobbyists

    11th September 2013 | News | Claire
  • In this excellent article, Simon Jenkins reveals that the breathtaking £50bn set to be spent on HS2, can be hiked by a further £250m – spent on a coterie of PR advisers and lobbyists. 

    If you remember, it is these advisers that “positioned” objectors to the project as selfish nimbys standing in the way of jobs and progress.  “We’re going to s*** them up”, was, I think, one of the quotes given to journalist, Anna Minton, who looked into this shadowy group.

    If the economy is picking up, it is no thanks to Mr Osborne.

    Here’s the article – http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/11/hs2-domestic-afghan-war – and below.

    The plan for a new high-speed train has become the Afghan war of British domestic policy. There is no more debate about whether it makes sense. The only question is how long can its apologists hold out, as costs soar and supporters slip away in the night. Has Patrick McLoughlin, the brave, embattled transport secretary, the guts to tell his bosses in Downing Street that the line cannot be held and retreat is in order?

    The latest body blow to the benighted project came on Monday from parliament’s “unofficial opposition”, Margaret Hodge’s ever trenchant public accounts committee. It dismissed HS2 as based on “fragile numbers, out-of-date data and assumptions that do not reflect reality”. This follows a scathing report from the National Audit Office. Even the official cost has risen to £50bn, with the Institute of Economic Affairs putting it at £80bn. To Hodge’s committee, that there are better uses for such lavish transport spending is beyond argument.

    Ministers are trapped. They are surrounded by a praetorian guard of public relations and project consultants hired with £253m of taxpayers’ money. This political-industrial complex is the sort that develops behind every “grand project”; firms know they will lose a fortune if the project is cancelled. Meanwhile David Cameron and George Osborne, scarred by U-turns everywhere, are determined to portray HS2 as the next Olympics. They cannot bear to climb down from something so spectacular, so glorious and so “tomorrow”. Like aircraft carriers and nuclear power stations, high-speed trains are toys for Tory boys, no questions asked.

    In a desperate attempt to regain enemy ground, McLoughlin staged a weekend breakout. He said that high-speed rail was not, after all, about high speed but “capacity”. His train from Derby was “bloody crackers”. It irked him that no new railway to the north has been built “for 120 years”, which seemed reason enough to blow £50bn.

    Meanwhile Cameron, never knowingly out-cliched, said HS2 was “vital to Britain if we are going to succeed in the global race”. Osborne declared himself “passionate” about it. In infrastructure, as in war, when politicians take refuge in the flag and national prestige it is a safe bet they know they have lost.

    HS2 is crazy. The biggest infrastructure project in British history is for “club class” passengers on just one line, requiring a donation of £1,700 from every taxpayer, excluding revenue subsidy (£3,000 if the IEA is right). This in turn has been calculated at a third of a million pounds for each potential traveller diverted from the present line.

    High-speed rail is no longer tomorrow’s transport but yesterday’s. Its development has ground to a halt even in long-distance France and Spain as using too much energy and too much subsidy. It has all but vanished from consideration in America. The benefit is to a small number of premium fare travellers, minimising the relief of capacity on existing services. HS1 from the Channel Tunnel to London may delight those few who use it, but the National Audit Office points out its passenger forecasts were “hopelessly overoptimistic”.

    McLoughlin may direct attention to capacity, but that is not how this line was planned or justified. If capacity is the issue, everyone knows that intercity first class is not under pressure. Commuter lines in London, the north and the west desperately need £50bn, not to mention the road network, used by far more businesses than rail.

    Lines into Euston are not London’s most crowded, compared with Waterloo and Paddington – the latter host to the two most overcrowded services, from Henley and Didcot. The rise in intercity passenger numbers is slackening off. As for pretending that HS2 will help “compete” with China and Japan, their trains are far more crowded than ours.

    Expanding rail capacity is costly and complex, but not as much as driving a brand new pathway to Euston. Here it will not even link with Heathrow, Crossrail or the continent via St Pancras. It will not even go to Birmingham New Street. It will blitz much of London’s south Camden because decades ago a rail planner thought businessmen deserved a more comfortable trip to Euston, and no one had the gumption to think otherwise. The project is completely out of date. There are not just better ways of spending money on trains, every other way makes more sense.

    A book out this week is the closest politics gets to pornography. It is called The Blunders of Our Governments, by those veteran voyeurs of politicians at play, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe. It analyses decisions – such as on poll tax, child support, ID cards and individual learning accounts – that were taken for the best of reasons, only to be blighted by the failure of those in power to show the guts to call a halt when they could see things had gone wrong.

    Pride, ambition, a desperation to succeed and a terror of the press drive those charged with spending public money ever deeper into the mire. None of their officials dares tell truth to power. Lobbyists, especially computer salesmen, clamour for more. Only money talks, and the talk is from those getting the money, not those supplying it.

    As in war, true courage lies not in splurging ever more blood and treasure to mask yet another mistake. It lies in stopping, thinking and, just sometimes, admitting a policy was wrong. The curse of British politics is not a U-turn. It is treating a U-turn as a weakness rather than a strength.