Forget the Garden Bridge and HS3: The best projects aren't big or shiny

Emma Haslett
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The garden bridge was scrapped last week as costs mounted (Source: Heatherwick)

It is not often that a British newspaper editor uses a rival publication to air their views, but then George Osborne is not a typical newspaper editor.

He retains significant interests away from the newsroom and yesterday he took to the pages of the Financial Times to defend one of them, complaining that his Northern Powerhouse idea was in danger of being neglected. In an op-ed, he urged the government to redouble its efforts to build so-called HS3, a new high-speed rail network across the Pennines linking Liverpool and Hull.

“It will not be cheap,” he warned. “I have seen estimates of about £7bn for the Pennine construction.”

But he added: “The [line] fits with Mrs May’s stated objective of building an economy that works for everyone.”

Osborne’s op-ed highlights a trend common among politicians (even former politicians) of opting for big, shiny, showpiece projects, then fighting to defend them once they begin to fizzle out.

Boris Johnson took the same stance with both his £60m cross-Thames cable car, which he continues to insist was excellent value for money despite its trickle of users, and the floating airport dubbed Boris Island, which was nixed by the Airports Commission after its expected cost rose to £100bn.

In reality, though, “boring” projects, such as road improvements and rail electrification in the north (which was unceremoniously cancelled by Osborne's successors in government) often provide more value to taxpayers than branded, headline-grabbing schemes.

The Garden Bridge is a perfect example. Osborne and Boris were both firmly behind it, between them pledging £60m from public funds. Last week, though, the bridge was finally scrapped following Sadiq Khan’s decision to withdraw support after it emerged costs for the £200m crossing had already hit £37.4m, before so much as a single shrub had been planted.

Meanwhile, as we have previously argued, east London is in desperate need of a less exciting but more valuable river crossing: such a project would be unlikely to attract backing from Joanna Lumley, but it would provide much-needed relief to the capital’s other bridges, which come to a standstill from the sheer weight of rush hour traffic each day.

A desire by MPs to create recognisable legacies for themselves after years grappling with the minutiae of high office is entirely understandable. But the true legacy of a policy is its long-term effect on the economy, rather than its ongoing association with individual.

Read more: Osborne tries to secure legacy as anything but Brexit

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