Monday 28 January 2013
MPs' Nimby-pampy arguments over HS2 head off on the wrong track
It was tempting, listening to the epidemic of localism which raged after Transport Secretary Patrick Mcloughlin's Commons statement today, to fantasise what the House of Commons would be like if there were no constituencies. And if MPs were picked on a purely national list system as in – say – Israel.
Would the debate then have been about the benefits to the whole nation of a mighty infrastructure project worthy of Brunel and designed, as McLoughlin said, in an almost Keynesian flourish, for "giving muscle to the economies of the cities beyond London?"
As it was, MPs had trouble seeing beyond the circulation areas of their local newspapers. The first backbencher to speak was Cheryl Gillan, La Pasionaria of Amersham, who you can imagine standing on the track and shouting the famous Spanish civil war battle cry "they shall not pass" as the gleaming locomotive begins its maiden 200-plus mph climb through the Chilterns. Assuming of course, she is still around in 2026 when the first trains will be running to Birmingham.
She foresaw years of "blight and uncertainty" in Buckinghamshire. If the Train was so great for the North, she argued, let it start in the North, "so the benefits are more immediate and the connectivity to the South East and on to global markets through the – as yet undecided – hub airport can be... better integrated."
Sacked as Welsh secretary – surely a price well worth paying for the release from Cabinet collective responsibility – Ms Gillan thus used in a single sentence three buzz words essential to any intervention on the subject: "hub", "integrate" and above all "connectivity".
Nor was she alone. Labour and Tory backbenchers united in calibrating their reactions according to the local impact of the route. Or lack of it. What would be the effect "not to put too fine a point on it" asked the Conservative David Rutley on services "to and from Macclesfield." The LibDem Sir Bob Russell was equally blunt: "How will it benefit Colchester?" Wanting a tunnel to protect housing on the route serving what McLoughlin promised would be the "major new interchange" at West London's Old Oak Common, Labour's Steven Pound warned that "fear stalks the streets of Greenford."
That said, McLoughlin overall had an easy ride. One voice, sadly, was missing. That of Windsor. Its multimillionaire MP Adam Afriyie, named as the stalking horse canvassed to overthrow David Cameron, had been spotted in the tearoom where at least two Labour MPs breezily promised him their support. But he stayed away for the great announcement: Was he uninterested? Or just biding his time?
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