Recently I got the chance to spend some time listening to experts in transport appraisal. I was polite, and all the people seemed reasonable, intelligent, and well-intentioned.
But I’ve only got 30 minutes to write this blog post, I’m proper raging, and I’m drinking – so it’s going to be rude. It is really not personal.
The experts mostly thought that calculating benefit to cost ratios was a good way to make better decisions about transport investment. They mostly thought that improving the calculations would lead to better decisions. And they mostly did not agree with me that money is actually assigned overwhelmingly by political considerations.
Here’s how I know that money is assigned politically, with huge bias towards London.
Get the 2006 Eddington report, go to the appendix on BCRs, pick out the public transport schemes that would help London and those that would help Leeds. Then look at which have been funded, and which haven’t.
The bias is there. It’s clear. I have shown it to lots of experts in the field, none of them have questioned the figures, and none of them have changed their minds.
For a scheme to be funded in Leeds it has to have AT LEAST twice the return on investment as a scheme in London. I no longer think that this is deliberate or vindictive, just the natural result of almost everyone who looks at this stuff, and decides on this stuff, living in London. And it's why I'm convinced that for this country to remain united and provide the best lives for the most of its people we need to get the Capital out of London. (or devolve power enormously).
It’s because of the bias that I see in the data, and that I saw in the room, that I’m more sure than ever that the way to improve evidence-led decisions in UK public investment is to get rid of the current bunch of experts and their methods, create a new set of much simpler methods, and give power to local politicians to battle it out, with their own experts and methods fighting too. Because let me clear, I don’t believe that our experts, our civil service, or our MPs are interested in facts or data in this regard. They are interested in London. They always have been.
That’s why I’m so excited about Mayoral elections in Manchester and Birmingham. Whether it’s Siôn Simon, Andy Street, Andy Burnham, or Sean Anstee, they’re going to battle properly for this money, instead of sitting around, trusting central government experts, and watching the great cities of this country — the cities whose industry changed the world and improved lives more than any others in the history of humanity — let down and held back for another century by the UK government.
Oh and last of all. Yeah I might be wrong, and I'm just being a gobby shit who doesn't understand it all. But guess what, if that's true then it's the experts' fault too — because if they can't produce explanations or evaluations of their work that I can understand, then I don't think they're providing explanations or evaluations that are useful to politicians. And its politicians who decide what happens in this country; whether we like it or not.