It takes an awful lot to put me off a jumbo infrastructure project. We have been hopelessly slow in equipping this country with the basic stuff that we all need to live our lives. We need better roads; we need a proper 24-hour hub airport – without disturbing vast numbers of people – of a kind that most of our competitors are now constructing. We need more clean power stations, and we should be getting on immediately with Crossrail Two, once Sadiq Khan has finished dickering around with Crossrail.
All these schemes are urgent and have my full support. But when it comes to championing HS2, the so‑called high-speed rail scheme, I am afraid my sword rather sticks in my scabbard.
The other day, I met a pair of highly effective anti-HS2 warriors, and they told me a tale of incompetence so blithering that it made my blood run cold. I checked it out and it was true in every particular.
A few years ago, the Government finally bowed to pressure from the people of west London and agreed to build a tunnel under Ruislip. They drew up the plans. They commissioned the Tunnel Boring Machines. They checked that there was a socket to plug in the Tunnel Boring Machines. But for some reason we will now never know, the people at HS2 forgot to check that the socket in question would actually be available.
They have now discovered that the electricity supply has been bagged for other purposes – and in order to plug in their machines and get boring, they are going to have to install a kind of giant extension lead – as if for a vacuum cleaner – by digging up the streets of west London and running a cable for miles and miles. It is going to cost at least £20 million, to say nothing of the disturbance to leafy Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
It is a total goof, and a perfectly avoidable expense. If someone had only done his or her job, and checked that the socket was free and not already booked out to someone else, then my constituents would not have the prospect of drills tearing up their streets and the taxpayer would not be on the hook for tens of millions on an extension lead that will never be used again.
Someone should pay a price for this mistake. Someone should walk the plank. Will they? Hell no.
No one is accountable for the waste, because HS2 is structured like so many other big UK infrastructure contracts, with a cascade of contractors and subcontractors, each shuffling the blame on to the other, and each of them ultimately with their jaws clamped around the teat of the Treasury. And every one of those companies knows that the Government will pretty much always pay up for their cock-ups because the Government knows that if one of them goes bust then they could all face delay – and the one thing that makes infrastructure cost more is delay.
Think of that relatively small blunder – the failure to find a socket in advance – and then imagine hundreds of such blunders, and you will see why the bill for HS2 has soared: past £60 billion, and heading for £70 billion. It will probably top £100 billion by the end; and so when you reflect on this lackadaisical approach to finding a plug, and the supreme casualness with which extra cost is incurred, you may find that your hackles rise at the notion that we need to raise more taxes in this country.
We do need to spend more on the NHS. We must find the extra £20 billion that the Chancellor has rightly promised. We do need to step up our investments in the police and schools and other vital public services.
But I am afraid I am not convinced that the answer is immediately to turn to the hard-pressed taxpayer, when Britain is now by no means a low-tax economy compared with several other jurisdictions in Europe.
Contrary to the direful predictions before the EU referendum of 2016, the public finances are improving. Now is the time for this Conservative government to show how a post-Brexit Britain will be a happy and dynamic economy that fosters enterprise, that rewards the strivers and the innovators, and where people can hope to take home more of their pay to their families.
I know it is not fashionable to point this out, but the United States currently boasts economic growth rates far in excess of this country, at about 4.5 per cent, and with record low unemployment – and that growth is being driven not just by the US government’s decision to cut taxes and regulation, but perhaps even more by psychology: by the sense that the government wants to cut taxes, wants to liberate and energise people. Do we send out that signal, here in this country? I am not so sure.
Instead of canvassing tax rises, we should say that tax henceforward will not go up. That’s it. No new taxes and no increase in rates. We should be lifting thresholds, so that people on modest incomes are not caught by fiscal drag, like so many in the South East.
We should also remember the phenomenon first identified by the great Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldūn in 14th-century Tunisia, and now ascribed to Arthur Laffer: that if you cut the right taxes, you can actually increase receipts for government. And with that in mind, we should be looking not at rises but at cuts to income tax, capital gains tax and stamp duty.
That is the way to get the economy going. If we must find savings in the short term, then let’s look at our bloated public procurement system, with its inflexible OJEU rules (the Official Journal of the European Union, which records all public sector contracts) that favour established companies and their complacent approach. Brexit gives us an opportunity to simplify. We should take it.
And we should remember the ancient lesson that lower taxes provably stimulate the energy and effort that can increase tax yields. It seems very odd to be proposing tax hikes when we are about to hand over £39 billion to the EU for nothing in return, and when a pro-enterprise tax-cutting approach to government would actually deliver the revenues to pay for the NHS and so many other civilised priorities. That should be our ambition.