Saturday 14 January 2012
HS2 and double speak
The government has finally made a decision on HS2. After some amendments to the original proposal the Transport Secretary Justine Greening has committed the government to build a highspeed line to Birmingham in the first phase, with a possible extension to Manchester, Leeds, and, eventually Glasgow and Edinburgh.
I should say at the outset that I am broadly in favour of investing in a high speed train network in the UK, as long as the new lines remain affordable. The ICE in Germany is a good example. You can get a ticket from Cologne to Berlin for about 30 Euros if you book early. On top of that, the ICE runs to Paris, into Austrian and Switzerland and therefore creates important links with other national rail networks.
What I deplore however is the double speak that comes with some arguments we hear from politicians. On Question Time, Justine Greening tried to make the case that the money for the new HS2 does not represent additional tax payers money since, wait for it, ‘the budget line will simply be transferred from CrossRail in 2015’. Paddy Ashdown then peddled the same nonsense shortly afterwards, saying HS2 will be financed by transferring the CrossRail budget once it is completed.
I am not sure how many people understand the phrase ‘transferring the budget line’ but I have to say I initially struggled with it. Once I thought about it, however, the sheer magnitude of verbal obfuscation dawned on me.
So, let’s look at this in detail. There is a capital budget at the Department for Transport which is currently used for CrossRail, say for the sake of argument, 4 billion annually (this is not the real figure). Once CrossRail is completed, the following year, another 4 billion which may have been spent on CrossRail, will now be spent on HS2.
Sounds clear? Not to me! Who says that there is a natural right by which these moneys belong to the Department for Transport? If I am not mistaken, these are tax moneys and once a capital project has been completed there is no reason why the department for transport should simply cast around for another big project to spend the money on again. What about saving it for a change? What about returning it to the tax payer through cutting income tax for some at the bottom of society?
Greening and Ashdown’s remarks reveal a remarkable arrogance of government. Once budgets have been set for a government department, not a penny will ever be returned, nor will a department voluntarily reduce its own budget line. For government spending, the only way is up!
I deplore this politician’s speak. Why not say that following CrossRail, another big capital investment is needed and the Department of Transport will hence continue to have similar capital spending as before? Why not be straightforward with the British public about it?
To be clear, I am generally in favour of HS2. I just wish our politicians would not try to hide behind Orwellian double speak when they have to defend difficult decisions.