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Last modified: 02 December 2017

Where trust in experts dies.

On the 30th of November, 2017 Crossrail2, a body funded with national money from Network Rail and The Department for Transport, sent the following tweet. It is representative of its current lobbying, and that of many similar organisations.

This tweet is misleading, close to the point of dishonesty. I replied, with kind offers of support from senior politicians and civil servants, and received this clarification the next day.

Crossrail2 are overselling the benefits of investment by a factor of five and I was the only one to chase it up. Many more such deceptions have gone unchallenged and uncorrected in the past. This will continue in the future. Journalists, civil servants, and politicians in London will continue to hear a biased story from Crossrail 2, funded by my taxes. The voice of the majority of the country away from London will remain, as it always is, sidelined and less important.

About BCRs

Benefit-to-Cost-Ratios (BCRs) are a method that the UK government has used for decades to assess the value for money of investments in transport infrastructure. They can be fudged, they ignore obvious positive cases for investment, and they overstate the importance of other positive cases. They are bad, but they are currently the least awful widely-accepted system we've got for comparing the value of different schemes.

The Department for Transport and The Treasury claim that BCRs are the largest factor in deciding how the UK government invests in transport infrastructure. They claim that higher-value schemes are funded in preference to lower-value schemes. They claim that this is why London and South-East England have received, and will continue to receive, far more investment than North England. Investing there is just better value according to the data, they claim.

These claims are not true. As I have shown, a scheme in Leeds needs a BCR around three times higher than a scheme in London to be funded. The same is true for Manchester. It is probably true more widely.

 

BCRs have mostly been used to cloak political decisions in an aura of data-led decision making. National decisions are taken in London, by people who live in London, for London's benefit. Then data, and a story around that data, is produced to justify that decision.

But as this data has become more open in recent years, the deception has been harder to maintain. People like me can examine whether the data proves that London schemes deliver better value for the nation. We can see in the data that they do not.

The now-familiar fightback of the exposed experts is quickly heard: "no, it 's much more complicated than that", they protest. And yes, it is more complicated than that. But much of the complexity has been created by those same experts to cover their tracks and preserve their generous salaries and profit margins. And even with the complexity, the experts are still wrong.

Sadly though, despite being wrong, the myth that they sell is almost universally believed in the media, civil service, national institutions, and politics. Purveyors of the myth are given senior roles in government to repeat it, national funding and commissions to promote it, and television shows on the BBC to sell it to the public. More understandably, people in London desperately want to believe what they're being told. Their train is full, their tube is packed, and it feels right that investing more in that is a top national priority. And the experts are telling them that they're right, so they believe it.

But no amount of feeling makes the myth any more true. What it does achieve is a political objective. London has the best public transport in Europe and is one Europe's most productive cities, partly as a result. England's other cities have among the worst public transport and are 30% poorer than similar cities in Europe, in large part because of it. The UK is North Europe's most regionally unequal country. This was by design. London's glory at the expense of our nation.

Why does this happen?

I've already written about this here, here, and here. I would add something about the desire within London to stop other cities in the UK from competing with it, but that's for another day.

What are we doing?

Earlier this week, The UK's new Industrial Strategy announced a Rebalancing Toolkit. It will "provide a framework to support high value transport investments in less productive parts of the UK". Politically this might be the right way forward — by adding in a preference for disadvantaged places the toolkit should make it easier to fund investment there. But there is a problem, and it's best shown by looking at another huge London investment, Thameslink.

Thameslink's BCR is terrible. Dreadful. Awful. Abysmal. Currently around 1.4 it is similarly poor value for money as Crossrail 2, and yet £8bn has been spent on it. Manchester's Northern Hub is just one example of a much higher BCR investment (3.1 initially) that had to be scaled back in order to increase its BCR (to 4) to reach the typical 3x return on investment for a scheme outside of London to be funded. I've given plenty of similar examples in Leeds already.

Every big UK city already has, and could design, billions of £s worth of schemes with a higher BCR than Thameslink. But they haven't been funded in the past and they wouldn't be funded now. As we speak, the government is cancelling many of the few such schemes it approved in the past. This is not because the schemes' BCRs are too low, remember they only need to beat the 1.4 of Thameslink, but because the investments would not directly benefit London.

 

And this is my worry about boosting BCRs in poorer places with a rebalancing toolkit, or a wider-economic benefits toolkit, or an agglomeration-model supplement, or something else. Our current system has for the past three decades ignored the data. How will improving the data help?

The change that really needs to happen is that we start using BCRs. The UK government needs to admits that it doesn't do so currently. It needs to show that it understands why it doesn't. Then it needs to change.

To put it more simply, Northern Schemes have deserved higher investment for three decades, and the money was spent in London anyway. Why will making them yet more deserving make a difference?

What would work?

I have two suggestions. One easy, the other hard.

There's another part of The Industrial Strategy that could help even more on this subject.

I consider the use of data in transport planning that I've just described to be unethical. Data and complexity are used to confuse and manipulate the general public, detaching them from the political process so that biased decisions can be taken. In transport planning I am one of only a few people who understands this, and even then only partially.

But the majority of Britons can feel that the experts are misleading them. They know that a bus journey in Birmingham shouldn't cost nearly twice what it does in London. They know that huge tunnels under London are not delivering as good value as simple fixes to local transport schemes that they are repeatedly told are unaffordable. And they know that when TV shows like Mind The Gap on the BBC perpetuate these myths, they are being misled.

An independent National Centre for Data Ethics is an opportunity to understand this process. It could investigate how this misuse of data rightly leads to people rejecting the advice of experts. If this is a possible goal of such a centre, I am glad it was announced in the industrial strategy this week. Given that location has played such an important role in creating the current problem, it is clear that The National Centre for Data Ethics could not do a good job at investigating this if it based in London. I hope it won't be.

 

The ultimate solution to this problem is beautifully simple. Since the origin of bias in the system stems from the fact that all of the experts are in London, we should make sure that the experts are not in London. We should also make sure that they are not reliant on cash and thus controlled from London.

To do that we could keep all of the UK's national systems and just move the government out of London to Manchester or Birmingham. This has long been my preference and is by far the simplest, quickest and most effective solution. It is also, sadly, the most unthinkable among the people who could make it happen.

More realistically, we should massively reduce the size of national government and its system of experts. But mine is not an anti-expert manifesto. We should replace this national system with a number of competing regional systems of experts, each with competing ideas and competing myths to push. This is how most countries that are more productive than ours work.

Competition of data-driven myths — I claim no exemption from the same biases that afflict experts in London — is the best solution to this problem. I am convinced that it is the best way to increase the public trust in expertise and democracy too.

 

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