EVERY so often, Boris Johnson allows the mask of buffoonish politician to slip. And when he does he has a habit of spouting the sort of sense that gives credence to the suggestion that, if he wasn’t such a liability, he might actually make a half-decent fist of being Prime Minister.
In bemoaning Britain’s maddening inability to call a halt to the chit-chat and crack on with HS2, he points out that in the two years we have so far spent gassing about high-speed rail, China has managed to build its own 813-mile route from Beijing to Shanghai. Where the Chinese act, we procrastinate. Where they’re decisive, we vacillate, prevaricate and shilly-shally. It’s not so much a case of carpe diem, more like carpe don’t.
Of course, China’s transport planners have a key advantage when it comes to getting things done. When you’re operating under a dictatorship you tend to find there’s no opposition to the breakneck pace of an infrastructure project, for the simple reason that there is no opposition. Full stop.
Hold on though, weren’t we supposed to have political consensus over HS2? Labour came up with the idea, lost an election, and a new Government came in and agreed it was a jolly good idea. So what’s the problem?
Well, now Labour’s got cold feet. Ed Balls insists the case for HS2 has yet to be made. Alistair Darling reckons it is a disaster. Peter Mandelson claims the whole thing was an electoral gimmick and should be ditched post-haste.
Such transparent political opportunism designed to unsettle the Tory vote in key marginals would be laughable if it were not fast gaining traction among the electorate. Labour’s calculated show of scepticism is succeeding in dragging out the whole process, feeding the worry and cynicism of the country in general and those whose homes line the route in particular. And this excruciating delay is costing us millions and millions of pounds. Lobbyists are being paid to promote the scheme, protest groups are using taxpayers’ money to oppose it. Expensive consultants are busy gobbling up public money working on drawings and plans without a single rail being laid.
Such anguished hand-wringing is simply ramping up the cost of HS2 and squandering funds that could be better spent ensuring it’s delivered quickly and on budget. Not to mention helping to sweeten the pill for affected homeowners by bumping up the compensation packages being offered to them.
The case for high-speed rail has been made, even if David Cameron – Johnson’s rival – admitted to the CBI on Monday that HS2 had initially been mis-sold. It’s not about spending £50bn to shave 10 minutes off the journey time between Birmingham and London, it’s about injecting desperately needed investment into a creaky rail network that’s bulging at the seams.
It’s anticipated that by the middle of this century the country’s population will be pushing 80 million. The roads are choked with traffic as it is. Unless we want to risk environmental armageddon and condemn ourselves to spending hour upon tortuous hour stuck on motorways, we need to find a better way of moving people around the country.
HS2 will not only speed those journeys up, it will also free up capacity on the existing rail network. Because let’s face it, not everyone is going to be able to afford the premium of travelling by a fast, fancy new train. Just as crucially, in the here and now it will help to bridge the growing North-South divide by increasing mobility between big northern cities.
But instead we’re wasting time and money having circuitous arguments based on half-baked hypotheses about what HS2 will or won’t do. How very British of us. Let’s not pretend high-speed rail is the silver bullet that will solve the country’s transport woes at a stroke, but it will take us a lot closer to doing so than if we allow Labour’s whispering campaign to succeed in wrapping the whole thing in mothballs, never to see the light of day again.
David Cameron talks again and again of equipping Britain for the “global race”. Yet this desperate dawdling over key infrastructure projects like HS2 leaves us destined to remain languishing at the back of the pack.
And it’s not just the Chinese who are lapping us. Across Europe, high-speed rail is increasingly seen as an essential tool for 21st century living and doing business. France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands have all embraced it. By 2032 – the tentative completion date for HS2 – their own networks are likely to make ours look archaic.
As for the sceptics, we have to remember that if we had listened to them we wouldn’t have the Channel Tunnel or the M25. In London, Boris Johnson ignored the naysayers who told him spending £16m on Crossrail was madness. The result is that vital capacity has been added to the capital’s rail network to cope with a half-million spike in its population.
Britain – the home of George Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel – should now be showing it has the vision and will to create infrastructure projects that rival the best in the world. To do so, however, we’re going to have to end this paralysis by analysis.