One of the many things you learn and learn to teach when you become a parent is the importance of impulse control. So you can’t always have just what you want as soon as you want it. Sometimes you can’t have it at all. Sometimes you get a choice of something else. But, just because you have a choice of something else, doesn’t mean that you have to take it even if you don’t want it.
The long-running saga in Leeds over the Supertram and its successor, New Generation Transport (NGT- the first UK trolleybus of modern times) mirrors this. The original Supertram project looked pretty neat – three lines of light rail radiating out from a loop around Leeds City Centre going to the NW, NE and SE of the city with the prospect of future lines covering the rest of the city and even linking up through to Bradford. When we first moved to Leeds in 2004 the preparatory works for it were already in place – you could see the places where the stops were going to be in currently pedestrianised shopping streets. The trams in Manchester and Sheffield gave a flavour of what could be achieved. It was a visionary project which, even without looking at the details much, made some sense and showed an ambition for organising travel within the city.
However, after cost projections for the project rose from £500m to £1bn or more and the economic case for the system fell down for the parts which would have linked some of the more deprived parts of the city, it was unsurprisingly cancelled by Alastair Darling as Transport Secretary in 2005 in a bit of pre-crash austerity. Instead, the Department for Transport said that a lower cost, bus-based system could be funded, if a suitable project was put forward. Fast forward to today, and we have NGT.
The thing is, after living in Leeds for a decade and in Headingley and Weetwood, through which NGT will cut a literal swathe, chopping down trees and demolishing buildings, I’ve yet to meet anyone who has got a good word to say about NGT. It doesn’t seem to meet any particular real need. Indeed, it seems that from NGT’s own business case, it will actually make congestion and emissions worse. The notional reduction in journey times during rush hour peaks is a matter of at most a few minutes and in reality, for most people, much less than that. For a “new generation” it also, peculiarly, doesn’t go anywhere near the areas which the Council has earmarked for large scale new housing development (on this count it would make more sense to be routed along the A65 towards Horsforth where large new developments are planned).
A sign of how unloved NGT seems to be is that at last week’s Weetwood Residents’ Association meeting, both the current LibDem MP for Leeds North West, Greg Mulholland, and the Labour PPC, Alex Sobel, seemed to be against. Although this wasn’t entirely clear, as neither called for it to be scrapped or said that they would work to secure this outcome at the Public Inquiry which is to start at the end of April. Interestingly, the LibDem ward councillors pointed out that Labour had whipped its councillors to vote for NGT (although this might have been before Alex Sobel had himself been elected – so he can’t be blamed for this any more than Ed Miliband can be blamed for the invasion of Iraq). What everyone seemed most intent on was securing that the £173m of funding earmarked for NGT got spent on something. I had the feeling that if in the end the Public Inquiry supports NGT, the local politicians’ current apparent opposition to NGT, or support for “doing something else for Leeds transport with the £173m” will evaporate or be airbrushed out of the record. Instead we’ll get election addresses about how they “secured major investment in Leeds’ infrastructure”.
Of course it would be nice to be able to keep the £173m which, even in an environment of cuts and austerity has survived the predations of George Osborne. There’s always a lot which could be done with such a large amount of money (even if nobody has come up with a particularly good idea about what should be done with it in this case). But, as with going out shopping with your children, when the thing they need isn’t available, they don’t need to get something, anything, just to secure that bit of cash from your wallet. When the something, anything, that they’d settle for is something even they don’t actually like or want, the best thing to do is for them to learn that it is better to get nothing. In this case, the “nothing” seems to be an investment in a fleet of Boris Buses by the local bus operator, without the need to bulldoze the Otley Road. Better still, this would improve transport in the whole city, not just the NW corridor.
If that means that the £173m doesn’t go to Leeds but becomes a saving for the Exchequer, that’s £173m of cuts elsewhere that suddenly have a much better argument against them. Both the leading parties seeking to form the next government say that they will be making further cuts, so why not let them make one that would actually be beneficial and only involve the death of a project that nobody is really particularly keen on and which serves no particularly pressing need?
Is there really no virtue in controlling our desire to spend money just because it has been promised?