But as a general principle it is obvious that both London and other cities would benefit from better and faster connections. The problem, as Peter Mandelson has indicated, is cost. This thing isn’t going to cost £42 billion, my friends. The real cost is going to be way north of that (keep going till you reach £70 billion, and then keep going). That is why the Treasury is starting to panic, and the word around the campfire is that Lord Mandelson is actually doing the bidding of some fainthearts in Whitehall who want to stop it now – not the first or second Lords of the Treasury, clearly, but the bean-counters. So there is one really critical question, and that is why on earth do these schemes cost so much?
Doug Oakervee is a brilliant man to have in charge of HS2, and if anyone can deliver it, he can. But he is dealing with a system of building major infrastructure projects that is holding this country back. Talk to the big construction firms, and they will tell you the problem is not the cost of actually digging and tunnelling and putting in cables and tracks. Those are apparently roughly the same wherever you are in the world.
It’s the whole nightmare of consultation and litigation – and the huge army of massively expensive and taxpayer-financed secondary activities that is generated by these procedures. It is the environmental impact assessments and the equalities impact assessments and the will-sapping tedium and cost of the consultations. Did you know that in order to build HS2 we are going to spend £1 billion by 2015 — and they won’t have turned a single sod in Buckinghamshire or anywhere else?
That is a billion quid going straight down the gullets of lawyers and planners and consultants before you have even invested in a yard of track. To understand the prohibitive costs of UK infrastructure, you need to take this haemorrhage of cash to consultants, and then multiply it by the time devoted to political dithering.
Look at the Turks. They have decided that they need a new six-runway airport at Istanbul, so that they can take advantage of the growing importance of aviation to the world economy. They are almost certainly going to do it for less than 10 billion euros, and long before we have added a single runway anywhere in the South East. Or look at Chep Lap Kok, the airport Doug Oakervee built for Hong Kong. The authorities announced it in 1989 — and opened it nine years later! If you want to get a sense of our sluglike pace in the UK, we announced Heathrow Terminal 5 in 1988, and it took almost 20 years to create; not an airport, just a new terminal, for heaven’s sake (and if anyone thinks the advantage of a third runway at Heathrow is that it would be a “quick fix”, they frankly need their heads examining).
Other countries have clear plans for their infrastructure needs over the long term, and the talent and managerial firepower is being moved from one to the next. We don’t have a plan; we have a list of schemes, each of which causes politicians such heeby-jeebies that they waste billions – literally – in optioneering when what they need to do is decide on the right course and crack on with it. We have proved with Crossrail and the Olympics that we have the expertise to deliver big infrastructure projects. But time is money: we spend far too long on bureaucratic procedures and then enormously multiply that expense by a political failure to blast on with the task in hand.
The result is that we are being restrained from giving this country the improvements it needs at an affordable price. We are like Laocoon wrestling with the serpents, or like some poor bondage fetishist who has decided to tie himself up in knots — and then realised, too late, that he has gone too far. We tug at our bonds with our teeth and pathetically hope the neighbours will come. Of course they won’t! Our neighbours are out there investing in airports, while we are investing in consultants.