11 May 2009

Hidden on the back pages

If you can pull yourself away from the recent headlines concerning MPs' claims for their second homes, and stop thinking about how one person can physically spend £9,000 on gardening equipment in a property he's in less than 30% of the time, the Conservatives have been making what would have been classed as proper headlines in previous weeks.

The Tories say they will terminate any plans for a second runway at Stansted Airport and have also insisted they'll commission a 'no holds barred' review into Crossrail and its £15.9 billion price tag, to see if it really is good value for money.

The latter rides in tandem with a piece written by transport journalist Simon Jenkins last week, who claimed that the £15.9bn could be much better spent upgrading the existing Underground network, adding much-needed capacity to services, which wouldn't happen when all eyes turn to Crossrail.

Perhaps even bolder is the new Conservative policy to stop expansion at Stansted. It's the UK's busiest low-cost airport, with an unrivalled number of cheap flights to/from all over Europe.

Theresa Villiers, the Shadow Transport Secretary, has certainly ensured her party the votes of all members of the ever-growing Stop Stansted Expansion Group at the next general election. Heathrow's planned third runway is being vehemently opposed by all and sundry and is expected to run to a significantly delayed timescale while legal protest after legal protest ensues.

There runs the risk of the current government attempting to rush through new legislation to signal the go-ahead for a second Stansted runway before next spring, when a general election has to be called. While Ms Villiers is powerless to stop this, ensuring a plentiful supply of publicity for the cause to prevent it is always going to be popular.

Back to the trains, and the Tories' refusal to rubber-stamp the Crossrail project came when their spokesman who is the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Philip Hammond, was asked a direct question by his honourable friend, Yvette Cooper, who wanted to know whether or not the Tories supported Crossrail.

Mr Hammond said: "Do the Government have no conception of the scale of the hole that they have dug? Every single programme and project will have to be reassessed and re-evaluated [should the Conservatives win the next general election]. Each project will have to demonstrate its value for money and its effectiveness in an extraordinarily tight fiscal climate created by the disaster that the Government have visited on this country."

"Is Crossrail worth £15.9bn?" is what Mr Hammond actually said, though in a roundabout way. There are many within the transport industry who simply do not think it is. Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone famously said 18 months ago that "if we get Crossrail wrong, it could bankrupt London!" And these words were uttered when the d-d-dreaded 'R' word wasn't even on the radar: recession.

With the prospect of a bankrupted London - the world's 5th largest city - are the Tories right to want to stringently assess all aspects of the Crossrail scheme, despite its much proclaimed long-term benefits? A bankrupted London would be unprecedented in every respect; its effect on every UK citizen is likely to be felt more than the current recession. (GWB)