Meanwhile, Mr Prescott is faced with a much more urgent decision. By the end of this month he has to decide whether to grant London and Continental Railways' request for an extra subsidy of anything up to pounds 1.2bn to build a high-speed rail link from St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel. If he refuses, that would be the end of the project.
This should really be an easy decision too, since even the money promised to LCR so far cannot possibly be justified. But for Mr Prescott to say that would mean acknowledging Labour's share of responsibility for the present situation.
The public money already promised or given to LCR (but recoverable if the line is not built) comes to pounds 2.4bn. The "justification" for this subsidy was given in a document laid in Parliament, in March 1996, but never debated. It was claimed that the line would bring benefits to the public worth, in today's terms, just over pounds 7.5bn. But pounds 6bn of this consists of benefits to Eurostar passengers themselves. There is absolutely no reason to subsidise these travellers. They are all likely to be well-off people, and a significant number will not be British taxpayers.
The only items in the document laid in Parliament that would be a legitimate use of public money are economic regeneration, and a reduction in road congestion and environmental damage. But these benefits were calculated to be worth only pounds 750m, not nearly enough to justify the subsidy.
This figure is not only insufficient, it is also incredible. A 68-mile, high-speed rail link through London and Kent will not improve the environment but will do colossal damage. Nor will it add 75,000 to 80,000 jobs to the economy, as Parliament was asked to believe.
The subsidy to LCR is not the only public cost involved. Compensation for blight also has to be paid. The Conservative Government knew that if proper compensation was paid, the sums involved might sink the project, so it managed to restrict compensation to cases of "extreme and exceptional hardship" and the maximum amount payable to any one person to pounds 5,000.
How did the they get away with all this in Parliament? Originally the Conservatives swore that no public money would go into the link. Nevertheless, they wanted it built for reasons of prestige. The journey from Waterloo to the Gare du Nord on the existing track takes only three hours, but it was thought to be an affront to our national pride that the train goes much faster in France than in England.
The Labour Opposition, impressed by the same childish argument, and glad of any stick with which to beat the government, taunted the Conservatives that it was only their ideological free market hang-ups that prevented their backing this glorious technological marvel with public money. So when the Conservatives changed their minds they knew that they need not fear any scrutiny from the Opposition.
In fact, building this link will not bring Britain any prestige, but cancelling it on the grounds that protecting the environment in London and Kent is more important than chopping 30 minutes off the journey between London and Paris would bring us world-wide respect.
LCR's request for yet more money gives John Prescott the opportunity to get out of this misguided project without too much loss of face. New Labour's reputation for environmental concern and financial responsibility depends on his taking it.Reuse content