Tuesday 29 January 2013

If fast trains are the answer, why isn't Doncaster Eldorado?

If I spent what little is left of my savings on a magnificent new train set, rather than on fixing the leaks in my roof, people might well question my priorities if not my sanity.

What exactly is different about the Government finding that it has £33bn to splash out on a new high speed rail link at a time of economic stagnation, widespread cuts and still relentlessly rising public sector debt?

It is the same logic that has us building two new aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy even though we can only afford to run one of them, may not have any aircraft to put on it and certainly cannot provide it with appropriate escorts.

The big vanity project always seems to stand a far better chance of getting through the selection process than the smaller and more sensible ones that might actually bring some real improvements to our lives.

If fast and frequent rail connections to London were the key to economic success, Doncaster would be Eldorado.

Booming Doncaster, courtesy of The Guardian

There is a persuasive case that, rather than boosting regional prosperity, high speed rail will simply suck yet more economic life out of provincial cities into the capital.

Personally, I would much rather be able to get reliably and speedily across the Pennines and back than to London. Questioned about this issue on Radio 4 yesterday morning, the leader of Manchester City Council responded that it wasn’t a matter of either or: we could invest in both.

Well, good luck with that. In reality, whether in transport, the NHS or any other area of Government spending, it is always going to be a question of either or. Unless, perhaps, fracking miraculously releases so much natural gas that it transforms the UK into another Qatar. Which might have its upsides, but is not the sensible way to bet.

Back in the 19th century, politicians spent an inordinate amount of time debating railway construction bills, whether a man should be permitted to marry his deceased wife’s sister, and Irish Home Rule. 

Scroll on to 2013 and we now have the eerily similar line-up of HS2, gay marriage and UK Home Rule, as the promised in-out referendum on the European Union might be characterised. All guaranteed to cause huge ructions among those on both sides who care passionately about the issues, and bemusement if not outright boredom for the rest of the population.

As in 1975, I suspect that most people who vote in the European referendum, if it ever happens, will plump for the option that seems likely to make them a little more comfortably off.

Hence we shall be driven to screaming point over the years ahead by hearing over and over again how many jobs depend on Britain’s membership of the EU, and the dangers of all those lovely multinational companies refusing to invest here if they believe there is a real risk of us voting to pull out.

Presumably those would be the very same terrible multinational corporations we are simultaneously urged to hate because of their marked reluctance to pay tax.

The central irony of this debate will be that the EU is simply the biggest politicians’ vanity project of the lot, in which any claimed economic benefits are massively subordinate to the holy grail of “ever closer union”, as Greece, Spain and Ireland have already found out to their cost.

I often wish that the optional approach to taxpaying extended beyond multinationals to the self-employed like me. Particularly today, on which I must meet the eye-watering demands of HMRC for the last tax year as well as making my first payment on account for the current one.

I seem to be paying for about half of HMS Queen Elizabeth plus Abu Qatada’s housing benefit for the next 12 months.

HMS Queen Elizabeth. An artist's impression, obviously. Particularly the planes.

Maybe the Government should pull into a siding and pause for thought on what those who actually pay their bills might like from those in authority. My advice would be to forget the vanity projects, whether in transport, defence, Europe or anywhere else.

Some simple, quiet competence in protecting and improving basic services, cutting red tape and encouraging entrepreneurship would get my personal green light.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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