Steve Richards: Suddenly every party is in favour of a high-speed line

Does it signal a cultural breakthrough which would bring Britain in line with Europe?
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The Independent Online

Something quite bizarre has happened, so counter-intuitive and unexpected that few seem to have noticed. Suddenly all the main political parties are committed to a high-speed rail line. Britain has waited decades. Now three commitments come along at more or less the same time. When Britain was booming, neither Labour nor the Conservatives were bothered. Now the economy is contracting faster than a train to Manchester, an ambitious, costly project is apparently to get off the ground.

Normally in Britain it takes a project like the staging of the Olympic Games to act as cover for ambitious building programmes. Without the glamour of sport the political will is often lacking. The cross-party enthusiasm for the railways, not connected to the Olympics, is so anomalous it takes some explaining.

The usual perverse indifference stretches back for decades. When Lord Adonis moved from the Department of Education to his current job as Rail minister he looked back at the records of cabinet ministers with some responsibility for transport since 1945. Only two implemented big projects. The first was Ernest Marples, who instigated an expansion of the motorways in the early 1960s. The second was Michael Heseltine who encouraged the development of the Jubilee underground line as part of his largely successful attempts to regenerate previously run-down areas.

On the whole transport secretaries have come and gone, most of them pretty quickly. The current government has had so many transport secretaries they would not be able to fit on a crowded commuter train. None of them have had the time, inclination or political strength to initiate any significant life changing projects. The one exception was John Prescott who, as deputy prime minister, could sometimes get his way with Tony Blair. But over railways he came up against the force of Blair's conservatism and the Treasury's lack of imagination. He never had the confidence for the fight. Imagine if Blair and Brown had sanctioned a high-speed railway in 1997. It would have become a lasting testament to their governments.

Instead leading British politicians tend to make wildly ambitious pledges which are conveniently vague, such as David Cameron's promise to "mend Britain's broken society" and, at the same time, announce trivial daily initiatives that do not amount to very much. The bit in the middle – big building projects – is often missed out.

Three questions arise therefore out of this strange un-British commitment. Why has there been a sudden consensus between the parties? What chances are there of the high-speed line actually happening? Does the commitment signal a cultural breakthrough in Britain, one that means governments will follow most other European countries in being more enthusiastic about projects that cost a lot to begin with but bring long-term benefits?

Not for the first time since David Cameron became leader, the Conservatives got there first. At the start of their conference last autumn they announced that they opposed the extension of Heathrow airport and would spend the money instead on a high-speed line. Apart from anything else this was clever politics. The commitment seemed clear and unequivocal.

A few weeks' later in the ministerial reshuffle, Lord Adonis moved from his job as schools' minister. Ultra-Blairites shivered uneasily. What did this portend, the removal of the pioneer of city academies? In fact the switch signalled something more significant than any dramatic change in education policy. Adonis told Gordon Brown he would move jobs if he could be in charge of setting up a high-speed railway line.

Adonis recognised that such a project could be at least as revolutionary as anything he had attempted to do in education and as socially important. This should be a statement of the obvious. Modern transport can link fragmented, disconnected regions and communities more effectively than a thousand other initiatives.

Over the past few months Adonis has visited other countries with high-speed links and plans to announce more details of Britain's project soon. His office is surrounded by maps of railways and one that shows the preposterous number of car journeys that take place each year in Britain, especially in the South-east. He is on the march and tends to get things done, hoping to use the recession-led emphasis on public works to propel the project forward.

As ever in Britain, though, there are problems as the political parties dance together. Things are not quite what they seem.

The Conservatives' opposition to the Heathrow extension and support for the high-speed railway line is on the surface a perfect double whammy. But delve beneath the glittering surface and the equation is not as neat as they suggest. During Wednesday's debate in the Commons on Heathrow, their shadow Transport Secretary, Theresa Villiers, caused noisy uproar when she admitted that her party was not necessarily against airport expansion in the South-east. In other words they claim to be "green" by opposing Heathrow, but want to reassure business leaders, travellers and many in their own party that they have not turned away from them either. This is one of several examples where Tory policies become flaky after a moment's scrutiny. If they support airport expansion elsewhere the spare money from Heathrow will be swallowed up on an alternative project. More broadly they have ringfenced the budgets for schools, the NHS, defence and international development, but propose an overall cut in spending and, virtually alone in the Western world, oppose a fiscal stimulus. The transport budget is bound to be vulnerable.

Adonis faces different challenges. He makes the case that a high-speed line should be part of the new emphasis on public works, but some in the Treasury head for a lie down in a darkened room when they contemplate the costs. Brown and Alistair Darling know that whichever party wins the next election faces years of constraints on public spending.

Whatever assurances he has received Adonis cannot be sure in the current economic context that the money will be available from a government that has never shown enthusiasm for such projects in the past. As a genuine enthusiast he also faces the negativity of the railway industry in which, if trains are crowded, companies argue that they need to price commuters off the trains rather than expand.

The sudden consensus should be an exciting moment for those of us who believe in the long-term social and economic value of major infrastructure projects. I will still be amazed if it happens.