Sir John Armitt is not the household name that he probably deserves to be, he is the chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, which makes him the government’s de facto independent advisor on infrastructure.
Earlier this week Sir John was on the BBC’s Today programme warning about the cancelation of HS2. He made several very good points.
First HS2 has, at a bare minimum, to reach Euston station in London and if that needs government money so be it. He is right. The idea that a private sector deal can pay for a huge national infrastructure project is a dangerous fantasy that has failed numerous times already. It is a complete abandonment of the state’s responsibilities.
Secondly, Sir John called for a delay of three years on the sale of land that had been acquired for HS2 north of Birmingham. This, he said, would “give the opportunity for people to revisit that and look at what can be done within that space and find a more cost-effective solution”.
The government says it is pushing through the sales to recover money, but the real worry is that it is really just salting the earth. The suspicion is that if the Tory government can’t make HS2 work they want to sabotage the whole project in case another government can.
But as Sir John warned there was a “real risk” this will make rail travel between Birmingham and Manchester “even more congested”.
It is not unreasonable to think that if HS2 itself cannot make it to Manchester, you might at least be able to use the plans and the money already spent as the basis for improving the links between two of the UK’s biggest cities.
That may be the least bad option, because the list of transport projects that the PM announced and which he says would be funded by the money saved on HS2 are, unfortunately, nothing but a “wish list”. Having announced these projects, the government then had to clarify that they were in fact an “aspiration” and apparently “examples” of what might be done, at some ill-defined time in the distant future.
That means two things. They almost certainly won’t happen, and if they do, they won’t be a coordinated transport plan for the nation. As Sir John said, “We had an integrated plan a few weeks ago, we’ve now lost that. There are a number of projects, some of which already existed, some new ones. Let’s get those properly turned into a well-thought through, integrated plan for the future”.
That is after all what you might think was the bare minimum requirement for a sensible country and something that the chair of the National Infrastructure Commission might be well positioned to prepare and present.
But no – HS2 was cancelled after 15 years of political consensus and replaced with something that looks suspiciously like pork barrel politics.
Cancelling HS2 was shameless but nothing compared with what has replaced it.
You can read more from Jonty Bloom in Jonty’s Jottings on Substack