Names and numbers
This week: a tale of two infrastructure investments; some notes on the popularity of surnames; and why is north not where we think it is?
A tale of two infrastructure investments.
Last Thursday, the government announced yet more delays to the increasingly ironically named High Speed 2 rail link. Completion of the line beyond Birmingham has been “rephased” by two years, which is as great a euphemism for “kicked down the road, yet again” as you’re likely to come across. More ridiculously, just as predicted by swiftly denied leaks earlier this year, trains may initially terminate not at Euston but in Old Oak Common, a desolate bit of west London next to Wormwood Scrubs.
All of this is of course nuts. It won’t actually save any money – may indeed generate more costs, through economic damage and compensation claims from construction firms – and diverting a large chunk of traffic from Euston to Old Oak Common will do horrible things to passenger flows on the Elizabeth Line. But this is what the Treasury needs to make their spreadsheets add up, so this is what we’re doing.
Then, in his Budget today, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt promised a huge expansion in government childcare subsidies. The 30 free hours currently available during term time to parents of three and four year olds will also, from September 2025, be available for kids between nine months and three years old.
There are plenty of issues with this policy too, of course. As with government housing policy for as long as I can remember, it’s pouring demand into the system and hoping the market will sort out supply: maybe it will, maybe it won’t. It doesn’t seem to help in school holidays, or to apply to those parents who want to return to work. And to those caring for kids now, two and a half years is a hell of a long time to wait. Nonetheless, this is a step forward, and an investment in fixing a problem.
Infrastructure is the stuff you need to allow other stuff to happen. Both these policies clearly count: HS2 won’t merely unlock journeys on its own route but, by untangling fast and slow trains, create capacity for more local ones too; more free childcare will allow working parents – especially mothers – to return to work. The Treasury, an institution that would never opt to pay twenty quid for something that works if it can get something broken for a tenner, has historically been terrible at both physical and social infrastructure. So why is it treating these two policy areas so differently this week?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess: votes. Childcare, and the lack thereof, has been rising up the political agenda (there was an excellent New Statesman podcast on the topic recently); and given that the young never voted Tory and the old still do, reviving the party’s fortunes clearly means a laser-like focus on the needs of the 30-50 age group. HS2, by contrast, is probably a vote loser – everyone will love it when it’s done, I’m sure, but at present people who hate it (because of the expense, or the construction work, or because Chris Packham won’t shut up) vastly outnumber those who are enthused. This is not an irrational way for a Tory chancellor to behave.
“Rational” is not the same as “good”, however, and a refusal to invest is bad and growth-limiting whatever the politics behind it. Broadly speaking, if we’re to jump start growth in this country again, we need investment in both social and physical infrastructure. Short term-ism has long been a condition afflicting the Tories and the Treasury alike. Sooner or later, we’re all going to pay for it.
Some notes on the popularity of surnames
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