I feel for UK Transport Secretary Philip Hammond MP. Probably the most intelligent person in the Cabinet, he should have been Chief Secretary to the Treasury – the minister in charge of managing public spending, and getting Britain's books back into the black. Instead, because of the horse-trading that went on when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were putting together their coalition government last June, he ended up as Transport Secretary. Frankly, it's a waste of his talent.
Particularly when he finds himself having to defend old-style (and highly expensive) prestige public-sector projects like the proposed high-speed rail link from London to Britain's second biggest city, Birmingham. The business case for this is quite shaky. It will shave only a few minutes off the journey, which may help businesspeople in already well-off London and Birmingham but do absolutely nothing for most of the rest of the us. Trains are supposed to be more environmentally friendly, of course. Not that many people fly from London to Birmingham, which already would take longer than taking the train. And environmental campaigners point out the scar across the countryside that would be carved by the new rail routs.
Mr Hammond's heart just can't be in it. Now he has had to defend it by saying it will generate '40,000 jobs'. It won't, and he must know that's the mathematics of spin. We're told that 9,000 people will be involved in the line's construction. Maybe. But that is 9,000 people who will simply be diverted from other work, including construction, elsewhere. Jobs that would be more productive, in that they would be led by the private sector rather than forced into life by government. Private businesses, seeking profit, invest where they see there is a public demand. Governments, in pursuit of political profit, do not.
Another 1,500 jobs will apparently be created in the operation of the link. Yes, but again, those are people who could be used more productively elsewhere.
And regeneration round the stations will create another 30,000 jobs. Ah, well, that may be right. Transport links always produce windfall benefits. But they produce them, not for the general public, but for those who happen to own property around the stations. And those landowners are probably doing better than most of us anyway. True, it might lead to the building of homes and shopping malls. But again, at least some – who knows how much – of that will simply be businesses and construction projects relocating to new, now-easier-to-get-to locations and away from the places they would have gone anyway. Is that really worth £17bn? Underneath, I am sure that Philip Hammond knows the answer. He just can't say it. That's the price of being a minister.