News that the Labour in Wales Government in Cardiff Bay has woken up for Wales by belatedly calling for Wales’s share of the UK capital funding being committed to the HS2 Rail project (in England) should be warmly welcomed. Plaid Cymru is absolutely spot on to criticise the hitherto lethargic approach pursued by the Welsh Government's when it comes to standing up for Wales.
This somewhat belated u-turn on HS2 consequential for Wales should be welcomed Labour in Wales, previously their standing up for Welsh interests has resembled sleeping in the armchair for Wales. Plaid Cymru has rightly accused the Welsh First Minister and his party of being "all over the shop" and correctly drawn attention to the fact that Labour MPs from Wales failed to vote against the paving bill for HS2 when it was being discussed in Parliament.
Labour in Wales sudden interest in the Welsh percentage (potentially we are talking of a figure of some £4 billion pounds) of the HS2 UK capital funding is in itself interesting. It coincides with the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee’s public criticism of the planned HS2 high-speed rail link as estimated benefits dwindle and estimated costs soar.
Coincidentally Labour in Westminster may be positioning itself to ditch the much criticised HS2 project. Hence the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) suggestion that theDepartment for Transport was failing to present a "convincing strategiccase" and added that it was instead based on "fragile numbers, out-of-date data and assumptions which do not reflect real life".
The PAC said there was no evidence the line would help the growth of regional cities and would instead draw even more business to London. A target of getting the required legislation in place by 2015 was criticised as unrealistic and the committee wanted to know how quickly the department would fill gaps in commercial and major project expertise among its personnel.
Additionally the PAC said that out-of-date assumptions for the high-speed line had been made including failures to take into account technological developments that enabled people to work on trains using laptops and other mobile devices. The case for HS2 still needs to be made and there is a valid line of argument that suggests that the potential £80 billion pounds (HS2 costs) could go a long way towards making significant improvements to significant portions of our aging railway infrastructure.
What concerns me is that the Labour in Wales government in Cardiff may be cynically asking for something that it knows it won’t get. While the skids are not necessarily under HS2, as the PAC’s criticism may owe more to Labour in Westminster mischief making, serious questions do need to be asked about the actual economic benefits of large scale infrastructure projects be they M4 Relief Roads, the LG Development or High Speed Rail projects.
The one mantra often forgotten by failing midterm governments and opposition parties is that when you are spending public money it is important to work it exceptionally hard. As we begin to stagger out of the worst self inflicted economic downturn in recent history we need to squeeze every single possible benefit out of it and putting all the eggs in one basket with one off massive infrastructure projects may not be the best way to maximise the economic benefits.