The upgrade of the West Coast Main Line cost between £8 and £10 billion and trains have a maximum speed of 200km/h, and it’s a fiendishly complex mixed traffic railway. France’s LGV Est cost €4 billion and the service speed is 320km/h. Why did the UK not go for a High Speed Line instead? Belgium knows the Jonction Nord-Sud will be at capacity by 2020 and is making plans now for what to do about the problem, while east-west journeys in London have been a nightmare for at least a decade and building still has not properly started for Crossrail, due to open in 2017 – if the horribly complex finances hold. Or the PPP system for the London Underground…
But it’s not just transport. What do you do about anti-social behaviour? Getting to grips with the heart of the problem – inequality – would be too tough, so ASBOs are thought up. An unenlightened population wants to see bobbies on the beat (even though they don’t actually stop much crime), so the government dreams up Police Community Support Officers that look like Police but are cheaper, rather than having a proper discourse about crime and society. On environment the UK government is waking up to the need to take some practical steps – a pay as you save scheme – while Danish and German firms have at least a decade head start on proper development of renewables technologies and have leading firms in the renewables sector. The UK has a witty word for opposition to windfarms – NIMBY – but still has far too few windfarms.
It even applies to government – where else would anyone dream up a messy fudge where the parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have different powers devolved in different ways, and live with an anomaly like the West Lothian Question? That’s even before dealing with unitary authorities, London and directly elected mayors.
Yet the one thing that does function are the UK’s unversities – with between 2 and 4 of the world’s top universities in the UK (depends how you calculate), and no other European universities in sight.
So in short the UK should have plenty of fine minds to help it solve any sort of problem but, at a governmental level at least, lots of the problems – from ASBOs to the West Coast Main Line – are issues that other countries just don’t have. Why?