Steve Richards: Will we really see this project in our lifetime?

His obstinacy is welcome – at least while Adonis is there the project is alive
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The Independent Online

Lord Adonis is the first Transport Secretary for a long time who actually has a passion for transport. In particular he has long been an enthusiast of the railways. Adonis also has a distinct ministerial style, taking on posts in government with big projects in mind. As Schools minister he focused almost exclusively on city academies. Now a high-speed railway line devours his attention.

Adonis is right to point out that Britain still needs to plan for major infrastructure projects in spite of the recession. His determined obstinacy is a welcome obstacle to all the counter-veiling pressures on public spending that might still jeopardise a high-speed rail project. At least while Adonis is there the project remains alive and almost kicking.

There are though grounds for considerable caution about whether we will see such a project in any of our lifetimes, even though it has the support of the other main political parties as well. First, transport is often one of the departments to be cut in difficult economic times. Indeed only two weeks ago Gordon Brown announced a switch from the transport budget to pay for other more immediate spending priorities.

Politically it is always easier to hack away at long-term spending projects because there is less risk of political fallout. Second, Adonis is unusual in his enthusiasm for the railways in the Government, and probably in any alternative government. In spite of the environmental benefits, and the extensive use of railways by voters in marginal seats, especially in the South-east of England, politicians have shown on the whole a complacent indifference to trains. Third, the political timing is not in Adonis's favour irrespective of the bleak economic circumstances. Polls suggest that the Conservatives are likely to win the next election, in which case he will be another of the many short-serving transport secretaries.

There is though one piece of strong ammunition in Adonis's argument. He points out that large sums of money for a high-speed railway will not be required for several years. He can therefore place his protective arms around the project without demanding huge amounts of cash from the Treasury at a time when spending cuts are being imposed. Adonis's defiant stance is also a reminder of what happens when possible spending cuts are looked at in relation to specific departments rather than in general terms. It is very easy for leading political figures to talk vaguely about the need to repay debt – Adonis will not be the only cabinet minister who stirs uneasily if the responsibility for tackling the debt lands on his or her department.

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