Ifan Morgan Jones
The contrast couldn’t be starker.
It was revealed at the beginning of this week that the cost of the high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham, HS2, had ballooned to £104bn, or £403m a mile.
And this morning it was announced that a promise to electrify the Great Western Mainline from Cardiff to Swansea had been ditched by the UK Government.
Instead, we’re being offered a fleet of slightly faster bi-mode trains which are less efficient, heavier and costlier to run than the electric-only stock that was promised.
There is a Welsh idiom that is appropriate here – I’r pant y rhed y dŵr. It literally translates as ‘the water flows into the ditch’, but it means ‘wealth flows to those who are already rich’.
This largely sums up the relationship between Wales and the south and middle of England when it comes to investment in the kind of infrastructure that creates further prosperity.
On paper Wales receives more money per head of the population than any part of England (apart from London of course), but it never seems to be spent on projects that would allow us to reduce our dependency on the UK Government’s largesse:
The UK Government will, of course, argue that HS2 is simply responding to demand.
The West Coast Main Line, which connects the major cities of London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester, is at full capacity.
But this is a circular argument in which Wales will always lose out.
Investment in London’s transport links boosts the economy which creates more demand which justifies investment in better transport links.
Meanwhile in Wales, a lack of investment results in low demand which is used to justify a lack of investment.
The lack of a half-decent road or rail link between the north and south of Wales is a good example.
It is argued that such a route would be pointlessly expensive as there are very few economic ties between these artificially created regions anyway.
But prosperity follows the path of least resistance. The journey between north and south Wales is so mentally and physically torturous it’s no wonder very few use the roads.
We’ve been here before – exactly the same ‘low demand’ argument was made against developing transport infrastructure in what was rural Wales in the 19th century.
What was the point of building expensive tracks and trains to connect what were at the time small, rural hamlets?
The Denbigh business man and owner of the Faner newspaper, Thomas Gee, answered those concerns thus:
“I need not tell you, sir, that the principal value of a Railway consists in its power of development,” he said.
“Our project will develop the resources of this district, stimulate the energy of its inhabitants, and open such a field for its slumbering surplus capital, that the population will be increased at least ten-fold, and we may see property considerably enhanced in value.”
He was right, of course. Tiny populations living in poverty became the prosperous towns that we know today.
He went on to lay out a vision of a Welsh economic corridor that would be united by the ‘iron roads’ built across it:
“Indeed, the whole of Wales, from Offa’s Dyke, in Flintshire, to Carnarvon, and Holyhead, in Anglesey-the whole districts, from Rhyl to Ruabon; from Ruabon to Newport, in Monmouthshire; and from Newport to St. David’s, in Pembrokeshire, will all be once more drawn together by that iron band- which was devised and is forged by the science, intelligence, and industry of the 19th century, and which diffuses unity and prosperity wherever it extends.”
If only our politicians had the same vision today!
It’s telling that the only part of Wales that has broken out of Wales’ economic rut in the last 20 years has been Cardiff. It is also the only part of the country that has seen significant investment in that time.
Unfortunately, the sad truth is that a lack of investment in Wales compared to London is probably as ideological as it is based on economic judgement.
Money is power and its suits the elite that this power is concentrated at the UK capital. Meanwhile, the less money – and therefore power – Wales has, the better.