Archive for October 2015
Government ministers have bowed to pressure and published a report by Public Health England (PHE) calling for a tax of up to 20 per cent on sugary drinks and foods, wrote Volterra’s Paul Ormerod.
[Why a sugar tax would be a big fat failure: People are too smart for central planners, Paul Ormerod, Opinion, City A.M., 28 October 2015]
If the tax reduced sugar intake in line with the recommendations, it is claimed that more than 77,000 deaths could be prevented in the next 25 years. PHE must be gifted with unusual powers of clairvoyance to be able to see the future with such precise accuracy. Better get the staff transferred to the Treasury or the Bank of England pronto, so they can predict the next economic crisis!
Volterra’s remarkable forecasting abilities have been recognised with the appointment of Bridget Rosewell as a ‘National Infrastructure Commissioner’.
[Infrastructure at heart of Spending Review as Chancellor launches National Infrastructure Commission, gov.uk]
From: HM Treasury and The Rt Hon George Osborne MP
First published: 30 October 2015
George Osborne commits to £100 billion in infrastructure spending by 2020
Chancellor George Osborne will today insist better infrastructure is vital to improve the lives of British people as he commits to £100 billion of spending in this Parliament for new roads, rail, flood defences and other vital projects.
Launching the new National Infrastructure Commission, led by former Cabinet minister Lord Adonis, the Chancellor will set out plans to ‘get Britain building’, saying that infrastructure will be at the heart of next month’s Spending Review.
In his statement, he will pledge £100 billion in infrastructure spending by 2020 – including full funding for the £15 billion Roads Investment Strategy.
A suite of asset sales which the Treasury expects to raise billions of pounds is being identified to be ploughed back into infrastructure projects, with more details to be announced at the Spending Review.
Speaking at the National Railway Museum in York alongside Lord Adonis, the Chancellor will also confirm the hugely experienced group who will make up the independent National Infrastructure Commission – the new independent body that has been set up to determine Britain’s infrastructure priorities and hold governments to account for their delivery.
The commissioners are:
Lord Heseltine – the former deputy prime minister who has long championed the regeneration of Britain’s inner cities through infrastructure investment
Sir John Armitt – the former chair of the Olympic Delivery Authority, and next year’s President of the Institute of Civil Engineers
Professor Tim Besley – a former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee and the LSE’s Growth Commission, which recommended an independent infrastructure body
Demis Hassabis – artificial intelligence researcher, neuroscientist and head of DeepMind Technologies
Sadie Morgan – a founding director of dRMM Architects and Design Panel Chair of HS2
Bridget Rosewell – a senior adviser at Volterra and former Chief Economist and Chief Economic Adviser to the Greater London Authority
Sir Paul Ruddock – chairman of the Victoria & Albert Museum and the University of Oxford Endowment
The commission will produce a report at the start of each five-year Parliament, offering recommendations for priority infrastructure projects.
Its initial focus will be in three key areas. These are:
* northern connectivity, particularly identifying priorities for future investment in the North’s strategic transport infrastructure to improve connectivity between cities, especially east-west across the Pennines
* London’s transport system, particularly reviewing strategic options and identifying priorities for future investment in large scale transport improvements – on road, rail and underground – including Crossrail 2
* energy, particularly exploring how the UK can better balance supply and demand, aiming for an energy market where prices are reflective of costs to the overall system
The sheer amount of money at the disposal of modern government gives untrammelled power to those who can circumvent the ‘checks and balances’, argued Simon Jenkins (29 October 2015).
[Tales of hi-vis New York chicanery from Osborne’s favourite author, Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, 29 Oct 2015]
[…] The reasons given to justify HS2 and Hinkley Point are mostly rubbish, and [chancellor George] Osborne is too intelligent not to know it.
[…] When someone has a sufficient interest in something – profit, vanity, glory, whim – democracy (between elections) is rarely strong enough to stand in the way. However potent the politician, he or she is rarely big enough to admit a mistake. They even prefer to pursue folly to prove their power.
Osborne’s megaprojects are like his tax credit reforms, with too much reputation invested to back down. Besides, as Deep Throat said, we should always follow the money. Where will Hinkley’s £25bn, HS2’s £80bn, or untold sums on Heathrow runways, Cricks of the north, concert halls and garden bridges actually go? The answer is the same place as £9bn on the Olympics: to the big international consultancy and construction firms that suck economic rent out of these state projects.
On 22 October, London’s Evening Standard reported that “Users of the heavily-congested Euston Road are set for six years of misery when it loses two lanes for work on the government’s new high-speed rail project”. Of course, regular readers of the Beleben blog will be aware that building HS2 would be extremely disruptive (much more disruptive than upgrading existing lines).
In October 2013, as part of an attempt to improve the public perceptions of the HS2 scheme, a government PR offensive emphasised the ‘fourteen years of disruption at weekends’ which would supposedly follow if existing lines were upgraded instead.
The government’s claim that not building HS2 would mean ‘years of rail chaos‘ received widespread media coverage, but was ridiculed on national television, and seems to have been unsuccessful in changing public opinion.
But what was the actual evidence behind the “14 years of disruption” claim? Since it was a cornerstone of the October 2013 PR offensive, one might have thought that the government, and Network Rail, would be eager to set out in detail all of the disruption involved in upgrading existing tracks.
However, it is plain to see that the opposite is the case.
[Network Rail response to freedom of information request about ‘HS2 strategic alternatives’]
Thank you for your email of 18th May 2015. You requested the following information:
‘The Strategic Alternatives to High Speed Two reports
do not give details of the cost estimation, or details of the rationale, for the individual interventions listed, or the breakdown of estimated disruption hours by intervention or worksite. I would like to request the information held on these topics.’
[…] Firstly, I would like to apologise for the delay in responding to your request, we do endeavour to respond to requests for information within the deadline of 20 working days, however in this instance we have failed to do so and we hope this has not caused any inconvenience to you.
I can confirm that we hold the information you have requested. However, this information is exempt from disclosure under section 36 of the FOIA.
Section 36 of the FOIA
Subsections of section 36 of the FOIA provide exemptions when, in the reasonable opinion of a ‘qualified person’, the disclosure of the information requested would or would be likely to inhibit the free and frank provision of advice (s36(2)(b)(i)) (s36(2)(b)(ii)); inhibit the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation; and/or prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs (s36(2)(c)).
For Network Rail, the ‘qualified person’ is a Minister at the Department for Transport. I can confirm that the Minister has decided that disclosing the information you have requested engages all three of those subsections on the basis that disclosure would be likely to inhibit the free and frank provision of advice; inhibit the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation; and prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.
This is because the disclosure of the information through the FOI process is likely to make Network Rail’s experts increasingly guarded in future interactions with the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Government as a whole. This in turn would limit the range of advice available to the Department and the Government when making decisions in the future; restrict the number and quality of views available to the Government for its future deliberations; and fetter the capacity of the leading expert in the field to assist the Government.
It is important to note that section 36 of the FOIA is a qualified exemption meaning that in order to apply this exemption we must not only obtain the consent of a ‘qualified person’ but must also consider the harm that may occur if the information were released, as well as carrying out a public interest test. Our conclusions are set out below.
As previously explained, it is our view that disclosure of the information in question through the FOIA process is likely to limit the range of advice available to the Government when making decisions in the future; restrict the number and quality of views available to the Government for its future deliberations; and fetter the capacity of the leading expert in the field, Network Rail, to assist the Government.
Arguments in favour of disclosure
The public interest arguments in favour of disclosure are that it:
• would demonstrate the thoroughness of the Government’s decision making process and engender confidence that a polarising decision has been taken on the best possible evidence;
• would be likely to assist Network Rail (and by extension the Government) by making sure that advice and information supplied by us to the Government was of the highest possible standard, the prospect of disclosure through FOI acting as a motivation to strive for higher standards;
• would be likely to lead to greater public understanding of policy making increasing trust in policy decisions and engagement between citizens and the Government; and
• would inform the public about the process behind and justification for a proposed scheme which is a matter of national importance and significant public interest. This would allow for informed debate and the possibility of members of the public challenging decisions which affect their lives.
Arguments against disclosure
The public interest arguments against disclosure are:
• good Government requires experts, like Network Rail, to provide expert advice and information honestly and unflinchingly. Concerns that advice and guidance, which is frequently asked for at short notice and regularly requires a degree of speculation, would in all likelihood cause our experts to rein in their advice to only the least controversial views. This would restrict the advice and information at DfT and the Government’s disposal and would not serve the interests of good Government;
• it is our view that the public interest in increasing confidence in the Government’s decision making process; improving engagement between citizens and the Government; and fostering more informed public debate on HS2 has already been satisfied by the prior publication of the reports in question;
• a disclosure through the FOIA could lead to a reluctance on the part of Network Rail to keep thorough and accurate records of its decision making process through fear that any speculative or potentially contentious views would be subject to disclosure. This would mean that any potential review of decisions would be hindered and the rationale behind decisions would be obscured, neither of which is in the public interest; and
• the long term impact of lower quality advice being supplied to Government might create a reticence on the behalf of the Government to seek advice in the first place. The effect of which would be that expert advice relevant to the Government’s deliberations would not influence the decision making process thereby diminishing the quality of the Government’s decisions.
Having considered the public interest, our decision is to withhold the information. This is because the public interest in disclosure has, in large part, been satisfied by the previous publication of the requested reports. In addition to which there is a genuine danger that our experts would not feel at liberty to advise the Government as frankly and directly as they should, the impact of which would be that the Government was less well informed when making future policy decisions.
This represents a refusal of your request under section 36 of the FOIA.
After cost projections for the California high speed rail project rose to USD98 billion in 2011, vociferous public and political outcry forced officials to reassess. They cut the budget to USD68 billion by eliminating high-speed service between Los Angeles and Anaheim and between San Jose and San Francisco, wrote Ralph Vartabedian.
California HSR rail authority chief executive Jeff Morales said that those changes were a normal part of such a big project and that he could not rule out additional changes.
[$68-billion California bullet train project likely to overshoot budget and deadline targets, Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times, 24 Oct 2015]
[…] “Nobody can sit here and tell you what something like this is going to cost over a 20-year period,” Morales said. “Any big program like this is loaded with challenges. The day you hear me say I am comfortable is the day I am not telling you the truth or the day I have deluded myself.”
Last week, Network Rail’s chief executive Mark Carne told the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee that electrification of the Great Western Main Line was now estimated at between £2.5 bn and £2.8 bn — compared to £874 million at the start of 2013. He added that there would be more “bad news” in the forthcoming Peter Hendy review of the company’s modernisation programme.
[Network Rail’s new line meets schedule, Gill Plimmer, Financial Times, October 26, 2015,
[…] Tony Travers, director of the London School of Economics, said the budget inflation was “shocking evidence” of underlying problems at Network Rail. “This should terrify the Treasury if they look at even the starting cost of High Speed 2 [the proposed new £50bn railway line],” he added.
Would the HS2 railway allow local / commuter trains to have “full use” of the reduced complement of 11 West Coast platforms at Euston?
Slide 13 of HS2 chief engineer Andrew McNaughton’s “Released Capacity” presentation (February 2015) does not support the idea that, with HS2 in operation, local / commuter trains would have full use of eleven Euston platforms.
In the Professor’s post 2026 scenario, all Euston West Coast fast line services would run well beyond Northampton and Milton Keynes, to destinations such as Glasgow, Crewe, and North Wales. Because of the lack of stations on the proposed Y network, it is not possible to
- replace long distance services on the classic lines, or
- realise “£8 billion of savings” on the classic network
without breaking connectivity for all the places which would not have HS2 stations.
The problem is not even restricted to the West Coast Main Line. HS2 would not serve any town on the East Coast corridor between Leeds and London. In other words, the rhetoric cannot be aligned with the Economic Case.
In 2012 the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee criticised the Department for Transport’s failure to evaluate the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (High Speed 1). Last week, the ‘First interim evaluation’ of the railway was finally published on the Department’s website (Atkins main report | Atkins appendices | Oxera peer review).
[Atkins HS1 First interim evaluation (extract), published on 15 October 2015]
[…] HS1 is a large and complex investment in transport infrastructure so careful specification of what was being evaluated and the counterfactual with which it should be compared was an essential first step in this evaluation. […]
The HS1 Scheme was defined to include:
* A new 109km high speed line connecting St Pancras International in London to the Channel Tunnel at Ashford in Kent (Section 1 opened September 2003; Section 2 opened November 2007);
* New / improved high quality station environments at St Pancras, Stratford, Ebbsfleet, and Ashford, with additional parking and retail provision;
* Re-routing of Eurostar services to the Continent via the new high speed line, instead of utilising existing routes from Waterloo to the Channel Tunnel. This includes an additional stop at Ebbsfleet; and relocation of the international London Eurostar terminus from Waterloo to St Pancras;
* Domestic high speed trains (Class 395) and high speed services to North and East Kent, with associated premium fares;
* A major revision of the Southeastern timetable (December 2009) relating to the classic network (Mainline and Metro Services), and increased fares across the Southeastern network; and
* New high speed rail freight capacity between London and North and South Kent.
As the main aim of this evaluation was to measure the value for money of the investment in HS1 the counterfactual was defined as a hypothetical scenario where no alternative investment to HS1 was made to deliver the objectives for the scheme. This counterfactual was developed for the purposes of this evaluation, and does not necessarily correspond to the counterfactual as understood when the decision to invest in High Speed 1 was made. It has been applied consistently to the assessment of Transport User Benefits, Wider Economic Impacts and Regeneration Benefits. This could be considered an unrealistic assumption; however it was adopted to ensure that the evaluation included the full costs and benefits of HS1. If the assumption had been made that some “do minimum” type investment would have been made in rail capacity along the corridor served by HS1 then the costs taken into account would have been reduced by the cost of this alternative investment, and the benefits taken into account would have been reduced by the benefit of this hypothetical alternative to HS1.
But what exactly were “the objectives for the scheme”? The report doesn’t appear to say. The objectives, such as they were, seem to have been formed after the decision to build had been taken.
What the report does say, is that the HS1 project has a computed ‘central case’ net present value of minus £5.9 billion, with ‘wider impacts’ excluded. Including WEI, the computed NPV is -£4.57 billion.
Was the road overbridge at the western end of Coventry’s railway station — an obstacle to extending the platforms — there in 1860? In many places in Britain, the difficulty in “upgrading Victorian rail infrastructure” is actually a difficulty created by post-Victorian planning decisions. When Coventry station was rebuilt in the 1960s, the opportunity to include provision for increased capacity was missed.
When Birmingham’s Snow Hill station was rebuilt and reopened in the 1980s, much of the old footprint was lost in the new design. The capability of the 1987 Snow Hill is impaired, because of its diminished surface area (and the lack of rail access to Wolverhampton and the north of England). Its capacity limitations are largely a product of decisions taken in the period 1960 — 1990, rather than the Victorian era.
In London, the capacity shortcomings of St Pancras station are largely a result of flawed thinking in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, just four platforms are available to accommodate long distance traffic from the Midlands and north. What are the ramifications for the government’s plan to modernise and electrify the Midland Main Line?
Flawed decision-making can also be seen in the regeneration of railway lands to the north of Kings Cross. The redevelopment could have included provision for a new high capacity station for East Coast Main Line traffic.