In the past week, the Coalition have backed controversial plans to construct the London to Birmingham section of HS2, a major public works scheme that aims to connect the capital to Scotland by high-speed train over a generation into the future. However it’s looked at, the logic of this depends upon a highly dubious belief - that a trainline that won’t open until 2026 and will only reduce the journey time by half an hour at most is the best possible use of £33 billion of public money.
The government are trying to sweeten opposition by floating figures of how many jobs it will create, always rather neatly ending in ’000′. The correct response is to pull a innocently confused expression and enquire, ‘I’m sorry, but isn’t that irrelevant?’ To make job creation on this scale anything but spin we must first know how much these jobs pay, how long they will last, who they will be given to and how they are economically productive.
If job creation were the name of the game, why not just pay one billion of the world’s poorest people £33 to spend a day digging wells. That would give the government an impressive amount of jobs to boast about on polling day and might actually do some good. It’s not about an empirical evidential base either as the case for the project is based upon unfounded assumptions over the direction of future technologies and the habits of businessmen and overlooks the economic harm caused by taking £33 billion out of people’s pockets.
No, this seems to be about ideology, as from the rather telling quote from the Transport Secretary:
“If we used financial accounting we would never have any public spending [and] we would build nothing.”
Who needs evidence when you’ve got belief?
But who’s ideology is this? After all, the project was set up by a Keynesian Labour government and is now being supported by a government that rejects Keynesian stimuli. The trouble is, it’s just about everyone’s belief as I recently found out campaigning against my local council’s proposals to build a thousand new homes on the local Green Belt over five years. While local residents overwhelming welcomed my input, my somewhat socialist acquaintances attacked me for nibyism. What came as a surprise was that my libertarian acquaintances attacked me for much the same reason.
Both argued that local residents should let the councils proposals go through, no matter what the social, environmental and economic arguments against them. Development is necessary, they said, signalling my cue to shut down my mental facilities and bow to perceived wisdom. How could ideologists of such opposing first principles support the plans which have provoked thousands of formal objections and united villagers together? My guess is that it’s for the same reason that every post-war government (with the debatable inclusion of Thatcher’s) have supported the ‘post-war consensus’.
For those who don’t know, the post-war consensus was the belief that the outwardly impressive centralised, bureaucratic planning that had seen us through the war could herald a golden age for Britain. What started with socialist MPs and William Beveridge was later supported by Churchill’s government and has been the stalwart of state plans for economic development ever since. It’s gifted us such ineptly managed projects as the Channel Tunnel, the Millennium Dome and all those lovely sink estates.
Now Labour’s 1947 planning system (which instructs bureaucrats to ignore the opposition of local residents and gives the power for local authorities to forcibly appropriate your property should it be in the way of ‘progress’) is gifting us HS2 and a thousand protested homes on Gravesham’s Green Belt. The government says HS2 will create hundreds of thousands of jobs; Gravesham Council say each house built creates one job. The government claim against reason they have compelling evidence that HS2 will be popular in 2026; Gravesham Council say much the same about homes must be built now for the market of 2031. Neither have a credible mathematical ground to back up their omniscient vision and both can only guess what changes they are likely to inflict upon the local communities, environments and economies.
While libertarian think tanks are siding with the nimbys against HS2, I find it odd that libertarians should find it so unfathomable that local campaigners like myself are not a threat to the free market. Liberalism is about believing that individuals are better at shaping their lives than the state and when thousands of locals are contributing arguments against a development, that can only be a good thing. It’s about protecting those individuals from vested interests and many local councils are being far from transparent about the wealthy developers who lobby them. Economic liberals should support critical scrutiny against the instinct that development is always to be preferred.
Our philosophically bankrupt government have now embraced the statist planning system to which nimbys are often the last line of defence. The Coalition fails to the see the irony that at a time when Scottish independence is being widely discussed, the UK is about to make the same bankrupting mistake which led Scotland to sell its freedom in the first place – speculating in a state-funded transport development which private investors wouldn’t so much as toss as a cable at. If we free-marketeers truly wish resources to be channelled where they are most productive, it’s time we suspended mistrust of the warnings of nimbys and respected the local knowledge they possess.
David M Gibson is a classical liberal, member of the Liberal Democrats and active campaigner. A collection of his writings can be found at davethedystopian.blogspot.com, as well as on the Freedom Association website. David recently posted “the stupid 100%” and “Sympathy for Occupy LSX” here on LV.