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Several things have been causing me concern recently and it’s time to get them off my chest: U-turns on smart motorways, the NHS COVID-19 Passes, the proposed new coal mine at Whitehaven in Cumbria, and the HS2 new railway project. Let’s start with smart motorways.

Smart Motorways

I live fairly close to the M27 motorway in the south of England. Ever since March 2018, the 18-mile motorway segment that connects Portsmouth in the east with the M27/M3 junction in the west has been in turmoil. We’ve lived with lane closures, lane diversions, and lane width reductions for over two years, and for what? Conversion to a ‘smart’ motorway, that’s what. The problem is, a smart motorway is not smart and, in fact, is both a dangerous and an unnecessarily expensive solution to congestion on busy motorways. I’ve written at length about the idiocy of smart motorways (Smart Motorways; what a Dumb Idea!, posted in October 2019) and it is somewhat ironic to see that the Commons’ Transport Select Committee is now calling for a halt on further rollouts of smart motorways pending a further assessment of safety when a breakdown occurs. I suspect that Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport, didn’t get round to reading my 2019 comments (he’s a busy boy) but why, oh why, didn’t someone think to send a team to the USA to see how the Americans handle freeway congestion in a much simpler way before committing to the expensive solution I see on my local stretch of the M27? It beggars belief.


Part of my NHS COVID-19 Pass. Barcodes rendered unreadable to protect my data privacy!

Now that pandemic-imposed travel restrictions have been relaxed, my wife and I have re-instated our pre-pandemic regular visits to France to visit our daughter and her family. As such, we have hit the wall of documentation needed to enter France via Switzerland (we fly to Geneva and then cross over into France), and then return back to the UK via the same route. I won’t go into all the details of the documentation required for this there-and-back trip other than to say we have to look at each country interface and determine what documentation is required—UK to Switzerland; Switzerland to France; France back to Switzerland, Switzerland back to the UK. It has been a nightmare of constantly changing requirements but one requirement has been consistent—the need to show our NHS COVID-19 Pass to whoever asks to see it.

The Pass is readily and freely available via the NHS app and details our Covid vaccination record both in text and as a QR barcode. Fair enough. I can download the Pass and place it in my Acrobat app (PDF format) or in my Wallet app on my iPhone. I can also print it out, just in case… (I’m old-fashioned; I like a paper backup!) But, the Pass only lasts a month. It has an expiry date. Why? The fact that you have received your two vaccinations doesn’t change so why does the Pass expire after a month? The text underneath the expiry date reads, ‘To protect your data privacy, the 2D barcode expires after 30 days. Please generate a new COVID-19 Pass to renew the barcode.’ How does expiry after 30 days protect my data privacy and if such privacy is a matter for concern, why does my driving licence last for five years; my passport for ten years? Both contain important personal data. Someone, somewhere has decried the 30-day limit on COVID-19 Passes but there’s no rhyme or reason for the very short limit. I googled, ‘Why does the NHS COVID-19 Pass only last 30 days?’ and found no explanation. What I did find however is that I can apply for an NHS-generated paper version of the NHS COVID-19 Pass which has no expiration date. Why then does the PDF version expire after 30 days? Answers on a postcard, please.

(I also have some scathing remarks about the mandatory UK arrivals Day 2 Covid test but I will save them for another day.)

The proposed new coal mine at Whitehaven in Cumbria

Artist’s impression

Much has been written about West Cumbria Mining’s proposal to create a new deep-mine coal mine on the old Woodhouse Colliery site in Cumbria with, first, approval given by the government’s then (2019) Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, to the Cumbrian county council’s decision to allow the development to proceed and, now, a governmental revisit of the approval under the control of Community Secretary Michael Gove’s Planning Inspectorate. I have read the usual reasons to allow the new mine to go ahead—creates jobs, supports the UK’s steel industry, reduces the need to import coal from elsewhere, etcetera but, fundamentally, the over-riding concern is climate change. One source states that ‘Coal is the single biggest contributor to anthropogenic climate change. The burning of coal is responsible for 46% of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide and accounts for 72% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the electricity sector.’ We can argue about the percentages but there is no doubt in my mind that pollution resulting from the centuries-old practice of burning coal as a source of energy is a major contributor to climate change and it would be absolute madness in this day and age to proceed with the Cumbrian mine. Clearly, certain individuals are putting short-term profit and prosperity ahead of long-term damage to the planet, and any politician worth his or her salt would adamantly oppose the development. It’s like the crew of a sinking wooden ship in the Arctic Ocean tearing up the deck planks to make a fire to keep warm as the ship goes down! I fervently hope that Michael Gove and his team will turn down West Cumbria Mining’s proposal and that the money that would have been spent on creating the mine is spent on researching and implementing alternative ways to provide energy to the UK’s steel industry. Otherwise, it makes a mockery of the UK government’s intention to add its signature to the 40+ nations poised to sign an agreement to end the use of coal for energy production at this week’s COP26 summit meeting in Glasgow.

HS2 Railway Project

Where to start with this very ambitious and very very expensive government-funded project? Originally estimated to cost £37B in 2012 and now (2021) estimated to be £108B with a final cost that is impossible to predict but considered to be out of control, this project aims to lay down a high-speed (205 mph) railway track from London to Birmingham (Phase 1) and then on by separate existing and new tracks to Manchester and Leeds (Phase 2). When I read about new grandiose projects such as HS2, I ask myself one fundamental question—what problem will it solve?—followed by a host of secondary questions. How many people want to travel between London and Birmingham in under one hour (49 minutes instead of 81 minutes)? Will more people use this route as a result of the reduction in travel time? Will the faster train service reduce congestion on the motorways? Will the cost of a train ticket be acceptable or exorbitant? What will be the impact on fauna and flora, including people, living close to the tracks? Will the construction contribute to climate change? Is it possible to calculate a realistic return-on-investment given the 20-year timescale of the project? And, would the money be better spent improving the UK’s healthcare system, or the education system, or policing system, or…?

I don’t plan on exploring the answers to these and other questions—you will find a decent summary of the pros and cons of HS2 in this Economics Help article—but what I know is that the cost of the project will continue to rise and that it will take years after completion before, retrospectively, the true costs, benefits, and penalties become assessable. Look at the privately-funded not tax-funded Channel Tunnel. The original 1988 estimate to build that tunnel was £2.60B. In reality, the final cost six years later was £4.65B, 79% higher than the original estimate, but this May 2019 article in the Daily Telegraph claimed that ‘A reported 26% of trade in goods between the UK and continental Europe goes through the Channel Tunnel each year, which represents a total value of £120 billion annually.’ It would appear that this set of figures suggests the investment in the tunnel was worthwhile simply because the tunnel is used but a true assessment would have to include the alternative use of air and water transport had the tunnel not been built; a study that would be impossible to make given the variety of topics to be considered: economics, passenger service, freight service, impact on the environment, illegal immigration possibilities, environmental impact, safety, security, and a host of other factors many of which are more subjective than objective and which would be difficult, if not impossible, to quantify.

Retrospectively, however, I think most people would consider the Channel Tunnel to be a success. I wonder if the same will be felt about HS2 once it’s completed and operating.