There’s a scene in Yes, Minister in which the minister, Jim Hacker, and his private secretary, Bernard Woolley, are being driven to Oxford for Hacker to be wined and dined at one of the Oxford University colleges. On the M40 a thought occurs to Jim Hacker, why there are two really good roads to Oxford (M40 and M4) and none to any of the ports, such as Southampton, Dover or Lowestoft. “Nearly all the Permanent Secretaries went to Oxford,” replies Bernard, “and most Oxford colleges do really good dinners…”
I was reminded of this when the local news was again about the “brain-belt expressway” announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond (Oxford University), in his autumn statement designed to run between Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge. Before the summer holiday the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling (Cambridge University), announced, “We expect to make a decision on the preferred corridor for the Oxford to Cambridge expressway this summer.” Five days ago an indicative route (Option B) was announced, which local naturalists say is the worst of all possible options. “The potential impact on biodiversity of corridor B is so serious that the route should have been discounted entirely” (Estelle Bailey, BBOWT). The potential cost was estimated as just less that £3.5 billion in July 2017, but we know how public spending estimates escalate. It’s projected for completion in 2050. It’s proposed to build lots of houses along the route (lots means, I read, a million – the equivalent of three Sheffields); and so London creeps north. The impact on biodiversity would of course be huge.
Will the Prime Minister, Theresa May (Oxford University), have enough energy or will power after Brexit to question the sense of the scheme? What do you think? You might think that I who had the immense privilege of spending some of my education in both Cambridge and Oxford would be an enthusiastic supporter of this vanity project. I know that it has lots of fancy justifications behind it dreamed up, no doubt, by dutiful Oxbridge civil servants. However there is already a fledgling restoration of the former Varsity railway line starting from Oxford, which could extend to Bedford and Cambridge and have far less impact on the environment and, one would imagine, cost less. More public transport must be preferable to more private cars and juggernauts. And there's something called the internet.
What most perplexes me is what has happened to the famous Northern Powerhouse once so loved by the Tories? Perhaps it was defenestrated along with young George Osborne. So HS2 gets only as far as that great northern city, Birmingham. Heathrow gets enormous investment with yet another runway, while regional airports which are accessible to most of the country remain undeveloped. No one, it seems, has the political courage proactively to resist the metropolitan drift which clogs the infrastructure of the south-east and starves the rest of the country.
It was William Cobbett in his Rural Rides (1830) who described London as the Great Wen (sebaceous cyst) and asked, "But, what is to be the fate of the great wen of all? The monster, called, by the silly coxcombs of the press, 'the metropolis of the empire?”
The answer is that, though the empire is long gone (despite the illusions of some Brexiteers), the monster has continued to spread and no amount of green-belt sticking plaster has been able to restrain it and it is as ugly and unnecessary as a boil, since no one has the courage to squeeze it and nourish other parts of the body politic instead.