Chaos theory has fallen out of fashion.
Once upon a time a butterfly’s wing flapping on one side of the world caused a tsunami on the other – likewise I couldn’t but help wonder whether this theory lay behind some of Wednesday’s Budget announcements – particularly in the not wholly un-chaotic world of rail investment.
Perhaps a Treasury official struggled through station improvement works en route to their Sevenoaks mansion, determined that ‘something had to be done’ about the rail network and lo, 200 miles to the north, a funding axe fell upon Network Rail’s TransPennine electrification?
The two tales
Reading the Summer Budget 2015 there are contrasting stories of how two of the nation’s major infrastructure providers are faring.
“We may be seeing the latest crack at overhauling rail privatisation coming from the Conservatives”
Highways England, taking the first confident steps onto the sunlit uplands of being an arms-length government company, already has a firm commitment to £15bn over the lifetime of the next parliament.
This funding commitment appears to have been augmented by the chancellor’s overhaul of Vehicle Excise Duty payable on new, hitherto exempt fuel-efficient cars from 2017, with this money (apparently) channelled into a roads fund for improving the strategic road network (trunk roads and motorways).
No pothole-filling-related announcements were made by the chancellor in respect of local authorities’ roads.
Perhaps the councils have exhausted themselves scrapping in competition for the previously earmarked funds from the previous coalition government.
Highways England’s fortunes are different to those of Network Rail.
Network Rail, with Sir Peter Hendy now on the footplate, continues to confront a range of bad press and fresh reviews.
The latter come not only from the newly dubbed Office of Road and Rail Regulation but also from HS1 chief executive Nicola Shaw.
“The politicians have probably folded away their high-viz jackets and PPE until the next time”
The Budget announced that the latter has responsibility for looking at the “longer-term future shape and financing of Network Rail”. Ouch.
The chancellor also announced that the Treasury is looking at channelling public money through the train operating companies rather than Network Rail, leaving Network Rail to “focus firmly on the needs of train operators and, through them, passengers”. Double ouch.
Ironically, after the election hullabaloo of Labour wanting to change the franchise model, we may be seeing the latest crack at overhauling rail privatisation coming from the Conservatives – with a degree of vertical integration arising just at the moment that Network Rail has wound up the deep alliance model it had been developing with South West Trains.
And let’s not even mention the irony of scrapping rail schemes in the North so soon after making speeches from the stump about the ‘Northern powerhouse’.
Maybe the newly-minted Transport for the North, with £30m funding and (at last!) a proper statutory footing, not to mention purpose-designed Oyster card, will have the answers to that conundrum.
With the election long gone, the politicians have probably folded away their high-viz jackets and PPE until the next time.
But the troubled and unrequited love affair between Westminster and Infrastructure will be no doubt going to continue through the summer holidays to the Autumn Statement, the next Budget and beyond.
Jon Hart is a partner at Pinsent Masons