Here in the UK some politicians have taken a break from their self-appointed world policing roles to support a deeply unpopular rail scheme known as HS2. The aim of the scheme is to build a high speed rail link from London to Birmingham and then extend it north to Manchester and Leeds. It has already been covered here several times before. And despite not yet being approved project staff are in post and more are being recruited – in London SW1 of course.
This week the latest ministerial line is that this project is too important to be stopped. It has to go ahead no matter what. [Remember ministers saying that the banks were too big to fail – so had to be bailed out; no matter what]. This approach suggests politicians are loosing confidence in the scheme and having to resort to arguments that seek to ignore the substantial risks and growing public mistrust. Which is a pity considering that it is the public that are going to have to pay for it. [Perhaps ministers need to be made personally liable for their wasteful schemes]
Back in 1833 when the first project for a railway from London Euston to Birmingham Curzon Street was launched it was funded by raising capital from investors. Today few, if any, investors seem prepared to carry the obvious risks of HS2 themselves – instead they fall on the tax payer.
But if that approach is irrelevant ancient history how about this example. In 2011 the Beijing-Shanghai high speed rail link opened. It had cost £21,400 million and taken 39 months to complete – for a distance of 820 miles. The typical travel time is 4:48 and the most expensive ticket in 2011 was £170. The route also carries high speed freight. So that puts the HS2 project in some sort of world context. The British project is already expected to take much longer and cost much more to build – yet the route is much shorter and for passengers only. And no one is denying that ticket prices will have to be much higher – even if subsidised by the tax payer ad infinitum.
Now if the proposed high speed lines had linked Plymouth (or even Cornwall) and Cardiff with Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen and also connected directly to the Channel Tunnel then perhaps there would have been a better chance of spreading the promised benefits nationally. Scotland may even have felt part of the United Kingdom again. And if the Chinese project team from the Beijing-Shanghai link could come to build it for us – at half the cost and in a quarter of the time – it would be winners all round …
To paraphrase an early item – after the age of empire it must be very easy for some Whitehall departments to forget that the British government is no longer … the world’s policeman. So today Whitehall is hyper-active over the latest barbarity in the Syrian civil war. It is so high on the agenda because it fits the myth that Britain still has a world role. The same world role it had back at start of the 20th century.
But in reality Britain’s political, financial and military capabilities have been eroded over the intervening decades. Two World Wars, colonial independence and the rise of new industrialised nations have all contributed to the substantial slide from power. But today’s politicians seem incapable of limiting their involvement to the much reduced parts of the world for which they remain legally responsible. And these days that’s not a lot. But still the Falklands, Gibraltar, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Pitcairn, Saint Helena etc form a wide enough geographic spread of responsibilities to keep our reduced military forces occupied – especially with our UN commitments. And that should be a big enough responsibility given our poor financial position.
So will Britain’s politicians tell the military to take action against the Syrian government? Who knows – the British people will have no say either way. And would these same politicians take the same actions if similar events took place in, say, Russia or China? I leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Today volunteers were busy preparing to reopen a South Yorkshire leisure centre that had been closed by council cutbacks. The same council also plans to demolish the Don Valley Stadium – the venue where athlete Jessica Ennis-Hill trained – as soon as next month unless a rescue bid succeeds. Supporters hope to get the venue listed as an asset of community value and so block the demolition. However the listing outcome will not be known until the same week as the proposed closure. And the decision will be made by … the same Sheffield Council that is making the cuts.
The closing of both facilities was put down to a shortage of money. So it seems like the government are to really blame through cuts to council funding. However things are rarely so simplistic.
Four years ago the South Yorkshire Councils agreed to build a communications network that would be owned and managed within the region and make the county “a UK leader in digital communications”. A press release, on 20 July 2009, stated “South Yorkshire’s journey to be the first truly digital region has begun with the official launch of the Digital Region project by Rosie Winterton, Minister for Yorkshire and The Humber, at an event in Sheffield on 17 July. The network is being built for the region by Digital Region Ltd in partnership with technology company Thales UK.”
The project was backed by a “staggering £90m of funding” [to quote the official web site] – the majority coming from the EU via European Regional Development Funding (ERDF).
This week (on 15-Aug-2013) the project operator, Digital Region, put out a statement – “The closure of Digital Region now offers best deal for public purse. Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield councils – along with major shareholder, the Government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) – have agreed [to] a managed close down of the network … The estimated cost of continuing with the project would be an estimated £95.8 million. Closure of the network would save the taxpayer an estimated £12.5 million …”
So that makes a loss of £83.3 million look like a “saving” of £12.5 million I guess. But it actually means that over £80 million has been spent for little return – hardly a “best deal” for anyone. Yet it was clear from the outset that the Digital Region team were spending big before signing any firm customer contracts. In short the whole scheme was based upon over-optimistic revenue estimates that had no commercial basis.
So the lack of funds that lead to the council making closures at the leisure centre and sports stadium may well be seen as a self-inflicted problem. After the failure of the earlier South Yorkshire projects – such as the Earth Centre and the National Centre for Popular Music – you would have hoped that lessons had been learned.
But at least it’s not quite as wasteful as some publicly-funded EU projects – the ghost airports in Spain for example …
After the age of empire it must be very easy for some Whitehall departments to forget that the British government is no longer responsible for Nyasaland, Ceylon, Burma, Bechuanaland, India, etc. In reality all the self-sufficient regions of the former Empire demanded, and won, their independence decades ago.
And not only are these former colonies now independent nations but the British – and often locals with British origins – are largely excluded from any present day roles. Excluded except, it seems, for one specific area – the never-ending provision, by Britain, of aid.
Yesterday we had the UK’s International Development Secretary [Justine Greening] defending giving £300 million of taxpayers’ money to Nigeria. Yet acknowledging the fact that Nigeria is a country with huge oil-reserves. And one that is planning to spend some of its royalty revenue on a space programme rather than on the projects that are so important as to need aid from the UK.
This latest example seems remarkably similar to the case of Britain’s £280 million annual aid to India. A programme that had to be defended by UK’s previous International Development Secretary [Andrew Mitchell] when MPs complained. With India’s economy growing at 8.5 per cent a year and the Indian government spending big on defence and space programmes it seems self-evident that British aid is not required. So even though the MPs sited evidence of corruption and waste in the India aid programme it is to continue until 2015. The fact that India has, this week, launched its first aircraft carrier, to be followed by a nuclear submarine, has made the British position look even more ridiculous.
But the reason all this has been back in the media is not an attempt to bring common sense to bear on Whitehall’s massive over-spending but rather because a UKIP MEP [Godfrey Bloom] had said ‘How we can possibly be giving a billion pounds a month, when we’re in this sort of debt, to Bongo Bongo land is completely beyond me’. The Prime Minister then jumped in to condemn the term “Bongo Bongo land” as offensive and so divert the media onto a discussion about a politician’s choice of words – rather than the multi-billion pound elephant in the room.
Meanwhile many UK Grandads are left wondering how they can afford to pay for their latest round of household bills out of their declining net incomes. Perhaps Nigeria or India could help?