The last refuge of the modern-day scoundrel is to establish the ground on indisputable quicksand. I want to build a conservatory, or concrete over my front garden? The last thing I want is people wondering why. If they’re allowed to stray in that direction, I’ll never win. So what I do is divert the argument into process rather than substance. If I can achieve that – get them fighting over what might be the best way to solve my problem, rather than wondering what exactly that problem was in the first place – then I’ve won. So establishing at (or ideally before) the outset, as a sine qua non, that ‘everybody agrees that I need more living/parking space’ is critical.
We can see this strategy unfolding by the day in several areas: HS2 and Boris Island, for instance. As far as I can tell, nobody, but nobody, has questioned that there are problems, because ‘everybody agrees’ that we have to shorten journey times between London and Birmingham by however many minutes, or pump more and more air passengers through Britain on their way to somewhere else – because otherwise, well, that’d be a bad thing.
‘Our future success as a competitive nation depends on it’ is about the most cogent argument I’ve yet heard for these or many other similar proposals. Nobody seems to be asking ‘hang on, before we even start talking, let’s see some numbers’. By which I don’t mean fatuous made-up so-called benefit figures, I mean the simple ‘opportunity cost’ question: what will be lost if we don’t do this? What will be lost, and by whom, and when and where, precisely? It shouldn’t be that hard to work out. After all, airport expansion projects have been proposed and rejected for decades. The projected benefits must have been quantified at the time, and the actuals are obviously available. But this has never, ever been checked after the money’s not been spent – nor, for that matter, does the converse get checked: what, for example, was the original business case for Concorde?
I think the promoters of projects of this kind should be made to put their money on the table. If HS2 is going to produce net benefits of £1.80 for every £1.00 spent, then let’s see you commit (in the form of promissory notes, escrow accounts, whatever) £0.80, to be cashed in, one way or the other, when judgement day comes. Any takers? Thought not.
I may have strayed off the point a bit. I apologise, I just needed a rant, any old rant. And I was distracted by Victoria Coren on HIGNFY.