Leaders: Fast link has to pick up speed

Edinburgh Airport. Picture: Jon Savage
Edinburgh Airport. Picture: Jon Savage
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VISITORS to our shores are often bemused by the Glasgow-Edinburgh rivalry that is so much of a feature of life in the Central Belt of Scotland.

Airline executives have long puzzled at the phenomenon of east-coast folk preferring to fly from Edinburgh to London to get a connecting flight abroad, rather than drive 90 minutes west and get an international flight from Glasgow Airport instead. The converse is also true. Glaswegian participation in the world’s biggest arts festival, just along the M8 every August, has always been surprisingly minimal relative to Glasgow’s proximity and population size. The two cities might as well be on different continents for most intents and purposes. But the lesson from around the world, from China to the US, is that rival cities within relatively easy reach of each other can be more than the sum of their parts if they co-operate and sell themselves globally as one entity. Such an approach would have benefits not only for the Central Belt but for Scotland as a whole. The success of that strategy, however, depends on transport between the cities being swift and reliable. And there’s the rub.

Our front-page story today demonstrates just how off the pace we are in Scotland on this crucial agenda. Plans for a high-speed rail link between Scotland’s two biggest cities began in a bold and visionary manner. Then, little by little, the scope of the project diminished. And now, as we report, the timescale has slipped a full three years because of a log-jam of logistical and construction headaches. This is not good enough.

The Holyrood parliament building saga – and the mismanagement, overruns and cost increases that marked its painful progress – is a memory that is still raw in the collective Scottish consciousness. We are still, in many ways, living in its shadow. It was part of the reason the SNP was so wary of supporting big-ticket and high-profile public sector spending projects such as the Edinburgh trams and the GARL link from Glasgow Airport. Practical objections may well have been to the fore, but the suspicion remained that the real reason was a fear of the political risks of such projects running out of control.

This is an attitude that has to change. On other issues the First Minister talks in visionary terms about Scotland’s potential, and seeks to foster a positive attitude to what we can achieve as a country if we raise our sights a little. His ambition for Scotland to be “the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy” is a good example. This is where Alex Salmond is at his best as a national leader, and deserves support regardless of party political differences and disagreements over the constitution. But it seems there is a blind spot in this administration when it comes to transport projects that could be of national significance. The scaling down of the Edinburgh-Glasgow high-speed link was most regrettable, especially at a time when Scotland was meant to be looking for “shovel-ready” projects that could help drag the country out of an economic despond. For the scaled-down project now to be delayed is unacceptable.

Scotland needs this work, and Scotland needs this high-speed link. It is time this became one of the Scottish Government’s key priorities. Keith Brown – who replaced the hapless Stewart Stevenson in the transport brief in December 2010 has shown himself to be a capable minister so far. He needs to bang heads together on this, and do all the Scottish Government can to get this project back on track.

Bedroom-tax alarm

THE missionary zeal with which Iain Duncan Smith ­approaches welfare reform draws admiration even from opponents. Unfortunately, zealots are not known for their administrative prowess. And in allowing the “bedroom tax” – by which local authority and housing association tenants will lose part of their housing benefits if they have spare bedrooms – to go through largely unchecked, the Welfare Secretary risks losing all public confidence in his wider plans.

This benefits cut bears all the accountancy-driven hallmarks of a Whitehall wheeze, which may have appeared logical on ­paper but fails the test in reality. Today we report the case of Iris Henderson, a 59-year-old grandmother with dwarfism, who has spent thousands to ensure her home meets her needs in order to live independently. She might, in the language of coalition ministers, be deemed “a striver”. She now has no choice but to accept a cut in her housing benefit which might, absurdly, now cause her to depend more on costly local care.

There will be plenty more people with similar stories to tell. It is the very opposite of joined-up government. Coalition ministers would have been better confronting head-on the glaring need for more social housing. Welfare reform is a necessary task, but there should be no home for careless and arbitrary measures like this one.