Big projects are not British

I was at the launch of Nicholas Faith’s book on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link(which we are now supposed to call High Speed One), On the Right Line, at the House of Lords yesterday (Dec 3rd) at which that old stager Michael Heseltine gave a wonderful speech.
He explained how, given the non-interventionist policies of Thatcher’s government, he was struggling to find a way to persuade her that the CTRL should be built. Fortunately he bumped into Reg Prentice, a former Labour MP who had defected to the Tories, claiming he was hounded out by leftwingers (in fact, he was a nasty right winger who was long past his sell-by date). Prentice gave him some advice and Heseltine went back to Thatcher:
‘I fully back your non-interventionist stand’, he said ‘but these East End councils – they are all run by Communists’. It did the trick. Anything to stop the Red menace.
It’s a nice story because it shows the extent to which we simply do not do infrastructure in this country. There has to be some other reason to get it built. The Treasury finds any excuse to withhold support, asking for inane business plans which make no sense to anyone who is economically literate and the Department for Transport is often all too ready to cave in to that sort of pressure.
Look at Alistair Darling’s tenure during which virtually every major project was stalled. He seemed to take a particular delight in doing nothing which is why I am so enjoying seeing his discomfiture. He was determined not to leave any trace of his existence, something he achieved successfully. What I can’t understand is why people like that go into politics.
It is, therefore, surprising that anything gets built in this country because we are so imbued with the laissez faire culture. As I recount in my book on the history of the Underground, the Subterranean Railway, the Underground extensions built between the wars only happened as a job creation exercise and even the Victoria Line was given the go-ahead for the same reason (which was a mistake since there was a boom in the late 1960s when Labour was scarce).
At the launch, John Prescott, who was the other politician who ensured the Link was built, made the point that the media are always ready to criticise any whiff of overspending, which is another barrier to getting things done. Too true as the current fuss about the Olympics shows. Sure, there may be some money wasted – and it is sensible not to spend millions on temporary facilities for marginal sports like fencing (which could probably be held in a school hall) – but overall there will be fantastic regeneration value. Look, for example, at the hated Millennium dome which has now become the most popular concert venue in Europe – I still think it was the wrong project, but nevertheless it has now, belatedly, been successful.
Remember, too, the fuss over the British Library, a fantastic building which no one would now criticise. And yet there were countless articles in Sunday papers about the cost overruns and what a disaster it all was. Same goes for the Jubilee line Extension.
It is a combination of the civil service culture and a hostile media which ensures that politicians like Darling thrive while those taking a risk are likely to be thrown to the wolves. That’s just one of the reasons why we will never get a High Speed Two.

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