You wouldn’t want to be running PR for HS2. Not these days. Every time you open your mouth to announce something good, it’s been spiked before you’ve got your first sentence out.
So just last week, just as Government was sternly reminding Labour that the project needs cross-party support if it’s going to survive and most of the House of Commons was falling neatly behind the latest begging letter, the latest analysis revised the predicted economic benefit downward. And that came hot on the tail of the last fiasco, where the project’s advocates were so busy reminding us all how much money it was going to generate for the UK, they didn’t tell us the truth about what “the UK” really means. Until it all leaked out, leaving them looking as stupid as people who carry on doing something in the face of all reason just because it’s what they’ve always done generally are. The source (of the information, not the leak) was KPMG, whose report apparently lauding the scheme was hailed by the Government as a slap in the face for the antis as recently as September. Now the full report is out, and it looks like 50 “areas” will end up being net losers, as local business keen to be close to the action relocates to somewhere nearer the various hubs.
The spin machine started up immediately. “Of course some places will lose out,” it droned. “But they’ll benefit in other ways, from other schemes.” Precisely what those schemes are, how much they’ll cost, whether they existed at all before a bunch of nervous politicians, advisers and infrastructure executives scribbled them down on a napkin at a hastily-convened but leisurely-consumed lunch in the aftermath of the leak, none of this is known. In the meantime, HS2 costs continue to spiral (110 per cent of the unblighted value of your home, anyone?) and erstwhile supporters cough and go quiet and suddenly turn up on the other side of the debate. The strongest argument in favour seems to be that they’ve started, so they might as well push on, a logic horribly reminiscent of the NHS computers fiasco that ended so wonderfully (if you were a partner at one of the consulting firms, anyway). No one’s yet come out and admitted it’s just a job creation scheme, a New Deal for a country that needs the jobs and could do with the railway, probably. That would be the honest answer, and in the overall scheme of things, it’s not the worst rationale I’ve ever heard for spending 50 billion pounds.
But if you’re going to spend that kind of money (and who knows, with our recent track record in infrastructure, it could get a hell of a lot higher), isn’t there something better to spend it on? Something that will benefit the people that really need it, won’t drain brains and leave struggling local economies without the scant business they depend on?
Yes, of course there is.
Because, look, once you’ve discounted the nonsense (like the notion that an expensive new intercity line is really going to do a great deal to ease congestion on commuter lines, like the flawed environmental justification which has been pushed to the back of the desk the moment it’s discredited, like the data that the so-called congestion is based on in the first place, like the idea that people can’t work on the train), what you’re left with is the big question of why, in an age of increasingly fast internet speeds, we’re supposed to just accept the assumption that the future is going to see an exponential growth in people wanting to use the train at all.
We used to assume that the future would see more people working from home and videoconferencing, and as recent events in London have demonstrated (storms, the Olympics), this was a pretty reasonably assumption.
But only for Londoners, it appears. Apparently outside the metropolis, and a few other high-tech hotspots, people just aren’t ready for all that science. They need to shake hands, look each other in the eye, sniff one another’s bottoms, build up a rapport the traditional way. That’s what the data tells us. They just don’t Skype oop north.
Well of course they don’t. They don’t have the broadband speeds for it, not outside the cities. Superfast broadband? There are whole swathes of the North without broadband at all, and the rural rollout scheme isn’t going so well (every possible supplier in a supposedly competitive process has dropped out except one, British Telecom, leaving the countryside and the taxpayer at the mercy of the people who own all the infrastructure already). And given you’re hard pushed to find 3G on most networks outside the bigger town centres, I don’t see 4G being much of an answer.
Of course spending a small fraction of the HS2 costs on a proper superfast broadband subsidy would enable all these people to suddenly look each other in the eye remotely. They could work locally, maybe travel to their local offices instead of all the way to the Big Smoke. There’s your congestion problem solved. The rest of the money could go on local transport upgrades and things the country really does need, like better care for the elderly, better hospitals, slightly less brutal austerity measures, things that don’t exacerbate the brain-drain and are actually supported by the people affected.
All this, though, would mean a lot of politicians admitting they were wrong in the first place. So I don’t know about you, but I’m not holding my breath.