Tories stick to the old politics

I was rung early this morning by the Today programme and ended up doing a small turn as the warm-up to Theresa Villiers on a story which highlights the Tories’ disarray whenever their policies are seriously challenged. The Guardian’s front page this morning highlighted the fact that the Tories are refusing even to look at the Government’s HS2 report through fear that they would then be compromised over the route which the new high speed line will take.

On first reading, I thought this was a bit of a non-issue but actually Dan Milmo has got himself a good story – or rather I somewhat sense he got fed it from an office not very far from Marsham Street. Theresa Villiers has indeed refused to accept Lord Adonis’s invitation to have a preliminary look at the HS2 report in case this compromises the Tories with local voters who might be opposed to the line going anywhere near them.

This was hardly a tenable position and not surprisingly on the programme she struggled not to sound completely daft.  She denied that this was the old narrow-minded politics but rather cleverly Adonis has pushed her into a corner and she could not summon up a good reason why she should not at least examine the report if given the chance to do so. It was was rather like the tale of the three monkeys.

Adonis is right that if a line is ever to get built – something I don’t believe will ever happen but the issue will certainly be in the political firmament for the next few years – it  will need a long term cross party consensus. Having committed themselves to the line first, the Tories gained a political advantage but with performances like that of Villiers on the Today programme, that momentum has been all but lost.

  • I’m not so sure.

    Villiers’ decision is a win win.

    They pour cold water on Adonis’ plans, don’t annoy blue constituencies in the Chilterns (that suffer all the pain but get no benefit from HS2) and kick the whole concept into the long grass until the next Parliament when public finances might be better (a big might I grant you).

    The only risk is that without a big idea the Tories will enter the General Election ‘transport lite’!

  • James Strachan

    Lord Adonis is desperate to get a signed deal before he loses power on May 6th.

    He wants HS2 on his (political) tombstone.

    But things don’t work like that in a democracy.

    It took five years to agree the detailed route for HS1 – and a lot of discussion and collaboration with Kent residents who were affected.

    We will need the same process with HS2 – both to clearly demonstrate the need and to adjust the route to cause minimum disturbance.

    So Theresa Villiers is quite right not to sign up to Lord Adonis’ blank cheque.

  • Dan

    Yeah – but in reality it just smacks of saying you want high speed but then when the chips are down you don’t want to pay for it (which is what you might have expected from the Conservative Party) – then you buy time and don’t have to worry about the bill. No wonder people talk about flip flop I suppose.

    I seem to recall HS1 had to be bailed out by Prescott when the complex funding scheme (including the hand owver of valuable public assets for ‘free’ all fell apart because the deal the previous govt put in place could not stack up (presumably).

  • Derek L

    I heard the Today programme piece and could not work out where Villiers was coming from. I do not see how being given a preliminary view of the report could possibly compromise the Tory position. They were being asked to look at it, not agree it. If anything, it gave them an opportunity to attack it on publication with some informed opinion. Possibly, the Tories are short of that, which may explain the rather convoluted position she took.

    I can see how, though, having floated HS2, and having it very enthusiastically adopted by the government, the Tories are now having a few second thoughts about its possible effect on a few heartland constituencies in Buckinghamshire – did that not occur to them earlier?

    Although quite obviously, having it running past your backyard will be noticeable, probably more so in construction than operation, I am not sure that it will be that devastating, a point that could do with a little airing.

    The Guardian a few months ago ran their centre page splash picture of leafy Buckinghamshire (or thereabouts) under a heading to the effect of what will HS2 do to this. It appears that nobody on the sub editors desk at the Guardian noticed that the clear green line of trees running right across the picture marked the course of the Chiltern line from London Marylebone to Birmingham, otherwise totally invisible. (Or perhaps they did, and wanted to see if anybody would notice).

  • eccentrograf

    The question I am forced to ask is “Isn’t this a 19th century answer to a 21st century problem?”

    Wouldn’t it be more objective to look at the problem in the context of all options. I read recently that the Japanese started constuction of their high-speed rail network in 1964. Do you think that they would have approached that project in the same way if they had had today’s electronic communications available to them then. Probably not.

    Thousands of small, medium and large businesses have embraced modern electronic communications (email, web conferencing, modern telephone) successfully, permitting remote working by their employees as well as the successful distribution of their business to regional offices where appropriate. In this country we seem to have a pre-occupation with “bums on seats” employment. Unless someone is at a certain location, the work is apparently not being done. We all know that this is simply not true.

    Of course, electronic communications does not mitigate the need for travelling in some cases, but I would urge anyone reading this to look hard at how they approach work and ask themselves, is much of their travellingt really justified?

    Why don’t we improve our exiting railway networks to cope with travel when needed, but encourge less travelling where it is unnecessary.

    Of course, electronic communication improvements do not have the same curb appeal as a brand new shiny railway when it comes to electioneering. This was confirmed in the last few days when the government suggested a laughable method for raising funds ti improve broadband connectivity. I say laughable for two reasons. One, because the amount they would raise by this means was totally inadequate for the task in hand. But secondly and of greater concern was the fact that many MPs cited that the economy couldn’t afford to spend money on such schemes at the moment. How can such an argument even hold water when there are rumours banded around that the proposed high speed rail scheme will cost in excess of £34bn!!!

    Infrastructure investment goes beyong roads and railways. Communications technologies can and do offer a realistic way of reducing the need for shuffling workforces from pillar to post. Invest in this and you can free the existing transport systems of unneccesary traffic, freeing the capacity for those wishing to travel. Moreover, workforces and businesses can be based regionally, encouraging the growth of local economies in an electronically joined up market!

  • David

    On 26th February 2010, the government announced to Parliament and the Stock Exchange that a decision on the IEP project was being deferred until after the general election, and that an independent review would be carried out to determine if it was value for money.

    As Lord Adonis also stated that “there has been a reduction in the capacity of the debt market to support the transaction as originally envisaged, and passenger growth has also slowed”, how long will it be before the concept of HS2 is ditched for the forseable future, if not permanently?

    After all, there are much cheaper ways of increasing capacity and reducing congestion; moreover, with imagination some of such measures could open-up new opportunities for rail, and hopefully this would result in some modal shift from road.

  • RapidAssistant

    I think that a re-evaluation of IEP is long overdue, and I think most factions within the professional railway press are in agreement.

    But there is no getting away from the fact that although the HST fleet is still superb, even before the refurbs, you can’t get away from the fact that they are of 1970s vintage and you can only keep on refurbishing for so long. That problem isn’t going to go away.

    As an HS2 sceptic – of course I agree that the initial cost estimates were grossly below what the real figure will be. Sure, even then it is a bargain compared to a lot of defence and health spending, but surely that money could be better spent electrifying the entire network, or reinstating things like the Great Central or re-opening Beeching branch lines where it would bring real benefit. Bringing the railway back to people who have been denied it for 40+ years is a more compelling case for getting them out of cars than simply chucking more money at the main intercity routes.

    I fear though that HS2 will become another Jubilee Line Extension – a project however technically worthy driven by political will just because it is a “nice to have”, not necessarily because it is the best thing for the travelling public in the long term.

  • Derek L

    HS2 is required because we know that the most heavily used and profitable area of the railway is intercity. Commuter traffic is also heavily used, but tends not to be profitable as a result of the peak/off-peak problem, that being eased as we move towards a more 24/7 society.

    The primary problem that Adonis identifies on IEP (financing) presumably applies to HS2 as well, although it is likely that the latter project is so long term that these problems will be resolved before any money has to be spent. The banker driven recession is not going to last forever.

    The other problem with IEP (not, as far as I could see, addressed by Adonis) is that if he intends to electrify large parts of the network (which seems to me a very good idea) the concept needs to be re-visited.

    More realistic than the concept of dual-mode (diesel or electric) trains might be electric IEP’s for electrified traffic, and diesel IEP’s for those services going beyond the electrified boundary, much as East Coast works on trains north of Edinburgh.

    It is a pity, though, that on current experience, it is unlikely that the newer trains will offer quite the pleasant experience of Mark 3 or 4 stock today.

  • eccentrograf

    Inevitably, telling a child in a sweet shop that sweets are bad for their teeth is going to lead to protestation and tantrums

    However, as that child grows up and begins to look more objectively at the world, they realise that the advice given to them in the sweet shop was well founded.

    We need to apply similar objectivity to the HS2 proposal and remember that we are grown up too.

  • RapidAssistant

    A general observation – the Tories have merely been riding a wave of discontent with Gordon Brown and New Labour for the past couple of years – and revelling in the fallout that’s come with the credit crunch, the recession, the expenses scandal etc. But now with the election around the corner people are now cottoning on that the Tories haven’t really excited the electorate with what they would do differently, or offered any clear message on what their policies are whether it is transport or otherwise. For David Cameron to keep relying on the line that the country simply needs a change is not enough IMHO, and people are starting to see through that. Just as it needed a change in 1997 of course, but then this was backed up by Blair’s campaign which also made it crystal clear what their legislative programme would look like – there were specific promises on tax, spending, health, education and other things such as devolution for Scotland, Wales and London for example. The Tories at present definitely fail completely on that score at the moment.

    I keep asking myself the question – what is the Tory party for?

  • Dan

    Well, good point Rapid – the mantra of ‘change’ itself has become attractive at a superficial level – and poeple buy into it easily enough – like how nice it would be to change your lifestyle, change your decor etc etc – but it can be a bit dangerous for politicians (ie a double edged sword) as in reality the last thing people really want is ‘fundamental change’ (try moving a family member’s favourite chair for example!)

    It seems you can promise change but if nothing happens the wheels start falling off. I’m no expert on US politics but Obama talked much of ‘change’ but there is not so much of it, I suspect, that those who bought into the idea can actually see yet.

  • RapidAssistant

    Yes Dan – I think the old adage “the grass is always greener on the other side” comes to mind.

    Maybe that’s why the Conservatives’ new logo is a tree???