This Week with Brian
Including changing facts, a lack of grip, bring back Brunel, repeat three times, short-term interests, drawing-pin bugs, a kiwi thrashing, commander in the doghouse, parking, water scrutiny, number crunching, the Frog and Peach, comedy animals, didn’t feel lonely, two undefeated winners and moon starers.
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The death sentence has finally been passed on the northern sections of the fiasco that is HS2 at the Tory Conference in Manchester. The statement was widely predicted and dominated the event. In pulling the plug, the PM did something that should have happened a long time ago. None the less, some very serious questions remain.
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One of his justifications, as reported in a Gov.uk document also issued on 4 October, was that “the facts around HS2 have changed.” I’m not sure what the “around” means here. Did he mean to say “about”? He added that “the costs have more than doubled.” However, it’s been known for years that this monster was completely out of control and during some of this period he was Chancellor.
Originally estimated to be about £30bn in 2009 for the whole Y-shaped network, the Oakervee Review in 2020 put the cost of the London to Manchester leg alone at north of £100bn. The stump that’s left, London to Birmingham, is estimated to cost about £47bn – so that’s about 50% more cost for about one third of the track, a six-fold increase. Someone is making a lot of money out of this.
How so little grip could have been got on the costs in the past naturally leads one to ask whether this will be any better in the future. Sunak promised £36bn for other transport projects (not all rail). This were portrayed as if they’re new schemes. In most cases they are not, merely previously cancelled projects like Northern Powerhouse that have now been un-cancelled: or, as regional policy and infrastructure expert Tom Arnold called it, “yet another hastily announced and cobbled together list of proposed projects rather than a coherent long-term plan.” Nor can the £36bn price tag be guaranteed with any certainty. The army of consultants which have been grazing so happily on the Treasury lawn for the last decade will not mind as further work awaits on these new projects.
There was a time when the UK was quite good a large-scale rail projects but the last really successful one was probably executed by Brunel. We were in France last week and I spent some time trying to explain to some French friends how we are spending about twice as much on a line as SNCF plans to on five recently announced projects that will be about three times longer. Embarrassment was my main emotion here.
Going back to Sunak’s comment about the facts having changed, he added that “the pandemic has significantly changed the travel patterns it was originally designed to serve.” This is drivel. There was never any particular problem with travelling between England’s three biggest cities and certinly not between London and Birmingham. The problem was trying to go from Liverpool via Manchester and Leeds too Hull, stations which are connected by a system that is basically Victorian – and thank god those bearded tyrants with their stovepipe hats knew what they were about.
As a plan to alleviate the north-south rift, HS2 was always insane. At the very least, the northern part should have been started first. Tom Arnold points out that “the extended HS2 station at Manchester Piccadilly was central to the Northern Powerhouse plans, in that that station was already accounted for in the HS2 budget.”
There was also a good deal of investment that happened or was promised on the strength of this great enterprise. Will any of these companies ever trust our government again? Then there were the people who had their lives blighted by the project, the ancient woodlands that were felled – and for what? We invented the railways and now we can’t even build one between our two largest cities, which we didn’t really need anyway. What a fiasco.
The PM also seemed keen to cast himself in the role of Thatcher’s heir. (It’s worth mentioning here that she won three elections while he has yet to contest one.) We have had, he told the conference, “thirty years of a political system which incentivises the easy decision, not the right one. Thirty years of vested interests standing in the way of change. Thirty years of rhetorical ambition which achieves little more than a short-term headline.” The first rule of political rhetoric is to repeat a good-sounding phrase three times. Job done so far.
By dissing every Tory PM from Major onwards, he’s also making an appeal to the right of the party without actually saying so. I can fix this “system” he’s telling us. How? “Vested interests standing in the way of change”. How’s he going to fix that? Thatcher at least took some enemies on in pitched battle. What is Sunak’s plan?
As for “short-term headlines”, that’s all politicians under this system can ever offer. There have to be elections every five years. In the final year, a lot of promises are made. The fact that they may have long-term roll-outs shouldn’t be confused with the fact that they express short-term interests. The system we have is incompatible with long-term planning, unless a project commands a sufficiently wide level of support to survive a transference of power. Clearly he doesn’t think that HS2 does.
A similarly opportunistic note was struck by the recent announcement that the deadline on a number of climate-change measures will be delayed. The fact that Sunak had to deny that this was for political reasons tells you all you need to know about the fact that it was. The idea of stopping a “war on motorists” also seems to be an election winner.
This does not, of course, come under the category of “short-term headlines.” Obviously, there are no “vested interests” that are being protected. There’s nothing standing in the way of “change”. Dear oh dear.
That said, it’s natural, and also reasonable, to want to prevent individuals and families from having to pay the cost of the massive changes that are required if we are to make the evolution to a post-carbon world and, in all probability, survive as a species. That’s what governments are for. There needs to be a vision for how the state can can help manage this change. It goes against the instincts of the Tories to intervene on this level: but even so, that’s what’s needed, not mealy-mouthed platitudes and electioneering clumsily disguised as innovative gestures.
So can we find an example of a recent Tory initiative where, when the world was faced with an existential threat and businesses were about to fold, a remedy was found? Er…oh, hang on – how about the furlough scheme and “eat out to help out” during the pandemic? Those were big-state things, showing that the Conservatives could help with transitional funding. True, climate change threatens to be fair worse that Covid 19. Something of that kind is surely needed now. But who was the architect of these schemes: who was the Chancellor at the time? No, don’t tell me – I’ll remember his name in a moment…
• And finally
• France is having an invasion of bed bugs and I suppose that even the wonders of Brexit can’t stop them eventually coming over here. Apparently they can live for a year without food and can probably survive high does of radiation and temperatures just above absolute zero. The French word for these little darlings is punaise which also doubles up as the word for drawing pin, which is appropriate – some years ago I had nine out of ten knuckles bitten and having drawing pins stuck in my hands might have been less painful.
• The Cricket World Cup has just got under way and the first match was a repeat of the remarkable final last time between England and New Zealand. England’s defence could hardly have got off to a worse start, being beaten by nine wickets with over thirteen overs to spare. The big weakness of one-day cricket is that the team that wins the toss has a good chance of winning the match. Having two innings of 25 overs each would sort that. C’mon, peeps, let’s try that next time.
• There have been a lot of horror stories about dangerous dogs recently – so far as I’m concerned, all dogs are dangerous – with varying solutions being proposed about how to deal with this. It would seem that, as with so many other things, legislation isn’t working. Obviously, a bad or ineffectual owner is likely to lead to a troublesome animal. If your dog has bitten eleven people in less than two years you might therefore conclude that there’s something wrong with the owner or the dog, or both. Should the dog not be put down? Not, it seems, if the owner is Joe Biden. “The President and First Lady care deeply about the safety of those who work at the White House,” a statement said. No, they don’t. The dog is called Commander, if you please, so clearly has got ideas above its station.
• Every time I read something about the Horizon Post Office scandal, the worse it seems to be. This article in The Guardian says that the PO “did not provide adequate guidance and training to prosecutors who investigated branch operators accused of wrongdoing.” The trouble is that, such was the corporate arrogance at PO HQ, that I doubt the bosses ever considered for one minute that their system might have been at fault. The latest Private Eye – which has campaigned against this shocking injustice for years – compared in one of its number crunches the £600,000 offered to wrongly convicted sub-postmasters with the £2.15m that was paid to the Post Office’s then CEO Paula Vennells between 2013 and 2019. Nuff said…