My now-retired literary agent introduced me to the expression “shit, or get off the pot”. It summarised her message, more delicately expressed, to publishers dithering over whether to ask me to write a book and how much to cough up for the privilege. The aphorism came to mind when absorbing the government’s decision to (again) delay the High Speed 2 project, including by pushing back the date for its arrival in Euston.
What is the right thing to do about HS2, whose scope has shrunk and costs have soared? Search me. Alexander Jan, rather in the spirit of my ex-agent, thinks the government should set itself some limits and devolve decisions about the project’s future to the affected regions. Others, including Sadiq Khan, want it to get a grip and press on.
The London Chamber and Central London Forward have warned that slowing down HS2 will mean higher bills in the end, and that holding up its link to central London will hamper the capital and the interdependence between it and other English cities. What is not in question is that London, once again, has been pushed to the back of the queue.
The predictability of this is matched only by its folly. Even as London’s economy demonstrates its resilience by pulling clear of Covid faster than anywhere in the UK, more evidence has emerged that its strength cannot be taken for granted.
In recent days Centre for Cities has demonstrated that the capital needs national government to help it to return to the rates of growth it attained before the 2008 financial crash, and Tony Travers has listed the policy changes required to help London to help itself, its people and the rest of the country. Greater devolution, consistent long-term tax sources and investment in public transport are common ground.
Yet London’s accommodation crises deepen, Transport for London is still struggling to make ends meet, the boroughs are the same, incremental “levelling down” continues, and the Conservatives in Westminster continue to hamstring the Labour Mayor instead of giving him greater autonomy. The 2019 Tory election manifesto declared the days of “Whitehall knows best” over. The Tory government’s behaviour towards the elected leader of the capital city has been the complete reverse.
It is difficult not to interpret the HS2 decision about Euston in that anti-London light and the context of the electoral politics of “levelling up” – it might be wrong to suspect the government didn’t think it could be seen to peg back the leg between Birmingham and Crewe without hobbling the “metropolitan elite” too, but the temptation is hard to resist. A big hole in the heart of Camden won’t be filled for at least ten years.
Whatever, its simultaneous neglect and top-down stifling of London does nothing for the capital or to address the regional inequalities “levelling up” purports to be about. Martin Wolff wrote in the Financial Times that “the UK has two regional problems, not one, and, as a result, a huge national problem too”. The budget is due next week. Will it contain any signs that our most centralised of central governments knows how to solve it? Will it take my erstwhile agent’s advice?
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