It’s amazing how many train wrecks we see these days. Perhaps the most important one facing the North East is the hushed silence that exists over HS2.
HS2 was announced under the dying fazes of the Labour government, via Lord Adonis, but was readily taken up by the incoming coalition.
Estimated costs have escalated by more than 50%, from £30 billion to in excess of £46 billion, but estimates by Dr Richard Wellings of the Institute of Economic Affairs placed the bill at a whopping great £80 billion. For such an ‘early doors’ position on the project, this is ‘mission creep’ indeed.
A number of economic arguments have been raised to justify HS2 which is explicitly seen as a “North to South” line. It favours certain parts of the North of the country yet demonstrates a poor understanding of just who and where the people of ‘the North’ are. According to the Institute of Directors, as few as 16 per cent of people perceive any benefits in Yorkshire and let’s face it those of us in the further reaches of the North East of the country simply haven’t got a look in.
Once again, we see what feels like central high-handed arrogance involved in redefining perceived equities in other parts of the country as an attempt to balance out the unfairness of a London-centric society continues.
We have recently seen political representatives in Cornwall and Devon lamenting parts of the railway line descending into the sea for the lack of sea defences and complaining about a similar lack of investment in parts of the country that have much to offer the economy yet, being at the perceived extremities of the country, do not enjoy investment or awareness.
HS2 will strip the North East of its ability to fairly compete. Parts of the country will be absolute winners under this regime and other parts will be cast into a murky hinterland. This is particularly unfortunate for the North East whose industrial and manufacturing output has been, to a certain extent, recession proof compared to the performance of the rest of country. One wonders what was achievable if infrastructure investment in the North East matched elsewhere.
The Institute of Directors, seen when it suits as the wealth generators and job creators and those who mopped up the deficit of the dieback of the public sector by producing counterbalancing jobs in the private sector, does not support HS2 . It has been accused by certain key members of government as simply not being in touch with the issues, yet they clearly question the value of this project which is near to folly status.
By whatever estimates, given our deficit situation and project cost increase, the diversion of resources for the completion of this project will undoubtedly compromise any counterbalancing infrastructure gestures that are made to the net losers of this fiasco. As for the North East, what is needed is self-evident; better support to regional airports, improved rail infrastructure with more rolling stock, longer stations and of course shall we get onto the fact that we are still dealing with A and B class roads that need extra lanes all the way to Scotland.
Speed is an interesting point in any infrastructure. We axed Concorde because it was not economically viable to maintain supersonic flight when subsonic flight had greater carrying capacity and, in many cases, business class offers a virtual office environment. Time in transit for rail travellers need not be unproductive in a world of broadband and smart phones as long as infrastructures exist and, oh yes, passengers can sometimes get a seat!
The impact of this London-centred ‘grand projet’ will have social and economic consequences for the rest of the country not served by it for centuries to come.
Most of all at a time when Ed Miliband is suggesting greater power to the people, we are seeing governments that, at the sweep of a pen, can condemn whole communities to being second class citizens when all should be first class passengers everywhere.
Who will listen to the North East, steeped as it is in its Labour roots and as a Labour stronghold, having to refute a Labour policy that even the Labour Party is beginning to fall curiously silent on, as costs escalate and little is evident to redeem them from the dreadful fiscal management of their last incumbency in government.
Meantime, it looks like the government have hit the buffers and are carrying on regardless. We remain in a debate about whether we are dealing with competency, disconnection via ruling class from the rest of us, or simply the snouting vested interests of some of those who will get contracts as the project unfolds. If Ed Miliband’s intentions to connect people to true levels of democracy are to have any meaning, (whether this policy is plagiarised from his brother’s 2009 speech or not), the issue is that all parties now need to have a real debate about just what connecting to the public really means. Meantime, all of us of the less privileged fringes of government awareness need to be on our metal and remember that the time is now, not when the rails are down, to exert all the influence one can.
My grandfather was a Jarrow Crusader, the people of Jarrow felt forgotten by the London-centric society and the impact of the privileged controlling elites of the day. But of course that couldn’t happen in the 21st Century, could it?
David Cliff is Managing Director of Gedanken and Vice Chairman of the Institute of Directors’ County Durham and Sunderland Committee.