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High-speed chuff-chuff.

POLITICIANS LOVE A grand projet. It gives them something to boast about, something to make them look important and visionary and establish their legacy. Something, also, to keep the media occupied so they can ignore the other screw-ups that are going on.

Sometimes, however, the grand projet goes the way of those other screw-ups. Costs start to multiply, original claims for the greatness of the scheme dissolve under scrutiny, opponents increase in number, and high profile supporters edge away uneasily or turn against it. That’s what seems to be happening to the government’s current plans for High Speed 2 (HS2), the new rail link between London and Birmingham and thence to the north.

This grandiose idea was first mooted under the last Labour government and was then eagerly picked up by the new crowd. The country definitely needed a brand new railway line, they said, so that high-powered business folk in London could get to Birmingham 20 minutes quicker than they can do at present. Or is it 30 minutes? The whole of the Midlands, the whole of the north, yea, the whole kingdom even, would be regenerated by this miracle! Let us go forth with wallets stuffed with cash and create jobs, jobs! jobs!

It’s all bull, of course.

THERE’S NO EVIDENCE that this expensive vanity project will have any long-term economic benefits for the Midlands and the north. All data from similar schemes elsewhere suggest the only region to benefit will be the south-east. There is, unfortunately, plenty of evidence that it will destroy large chunks of green belt, require the demolition of historic buildings and archeological sites, lower property prices and require relocation of rare animal species.

Already the great Lord Mandelson has backed away from it as an “expensive mistake”, and he should know about those. Margaret Hodge, family-trust-tax-dodging Tax Dodger Finder General (or Chair of the Public Accounts Committee) has declared it “complete madness”, while Vince Cable has been burbling about a “case still being made” for it.

Polly Toynbee, bless her, is confused. “I have never been able to make up my mind on HS2,” she admits, “so much is unknowable and the figures on both sides conflict so wildly.” It must be the first time she’s ever had doubts about giving the state a thumbs-up to squander billions of taxpayers’ cash.

But Polly, like many people, is also confused about who built the railways in the first place: “Why was the Victorian state so good at building great cities, sewers, clean water pipes, railways, roads and all the infrastructure we still rely on,” she moans, “while we dither, fear to spend or to commandeer the levers of control for the public good?” Simple: the Victorian state by and large didn’t build that infrastructure; the private sector did. For profit.

This reluctance of the part of our politicians and the media to acknowledge the role of the EU in the running of our railways goes back some 20 years.

Without realising it, Polly has put her finger on the source of the problem: the state. Because it’s not just the British state with its bossy fingers at work here. The dirty truth that the media (apart from a few mentions in the Telegraph) dare not confess is that HS2 is an EU project, dreamed up years ago by Jacques Delors. That explains the enthusiasm for HS2 by all major parties – a bit like the enthusiasm for privatising the Royal Mail, which is also a direct result of compliance with EU law.

Indeed, this reluctance on the part of our politicians and the media to acknowledge the role of the EU in the running of our railways goes back some 20 years. Margaret Thatcher infamously hated the railways but just as infamously refused to privatise them. That happened in 1993, not long after her successor John Major took power. The first EU directive on rail services was issued in 1991 (EU Directive 91/440). Thereafter management of infrastructure had to be separated from provision of train services. So now you know why the situation is as it is. Blame the EU. And the Tories for being their willing poodles.

And this explains why the progress of HS2 has such a dull, bureaucratic relentlessness to it. Think of all those political careers bound up in being on board, all those pen-chewing apparatchiks in the Civil Service looking over their shoulders at their EU bosses, all those “journalists” in the BBC and the other broadcast media, carefully censoring the origins of it out of their reports and commentaries lest our political leaders are revealed to be no more than the minions of Brussels they actually are.

But the critics are increasing, their arguments are getting stronger and even some of the political class are sensing they make get a hiding from the backlash; the anti-HS2 movement is picking up steam. Le grand projet may still be left standing in la gare de Bruxelles.

Michael Blackburn.

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