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George Bathurst is a former Conservative Councillor and lead member at Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. As well as promoting better transport solutions he works in IT infrastructure and cyber security.

As Boris Johnson promises to ‘build build build’ to lead us out of the lockdown, how will we decide which infrastructure projects? Will they be state-led or market-led? Is there even a difference? And what role will competition play?

Stories of great infrastructure competitions are still told hundreds of years later. Isambard Kingdom Brunel lost the competition to build the Bristol suspension bridge but he didn’t give up: when the initial winner foundered, he was invited back.

Unfortunately, like beautiful bridges, competitions have become to be seen as old-fashioned, belonging to a different, less-enlightened age, childish at best and akin to war at worst. Wouldn’t it be better if we could all just agree, get on with it without the drama? Can’t everybody be a winner?

But if you think competitions are not the future, consider the website you are reading right now. Look at the little padlock in your web browser that indicates your connection is encrypted. This is the result of one of the most successful competitions of all time, something I’m familiar with from my work in cyber security.

In 1997, the American National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) invited proposals for what was to be the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES).

It was a stunning success, laying the foundation for the explosion of internet commerce that followed. The fact that home working during the present pandemic is even a practical option for so many of us is the result. It’s so good that even twenty years later, government spies have all but given up trying to hack it (which is why we see repeated calls for legislation to break it).

Even the losers in the competition were pleased with it. Bruce Schneier, one of the authors of the Twofish algorithm, said, “I have nothing but good things to say about the NIST and AES process.” He went on to fix some of the criticisms of his own cipher and it’s now included in OpenPGP, widely used for encrypting emails.

Now let’s compare this with competitions run by the UK Department for Transport. Take the southern rail link to Heathrow, for example.

Two years ago Chris Grayling, the then Transport Secretary, felt that surely one of the richest regions in the country could fund this privately. He announced Market-Led Proposals, saying that “the government doesn’t have a monopoly on good ideas.”

Five companies worked up serious proposals in response. These included: MTR, the Hong Kong-based Crossrail operator, a proposal for a new high speed railway from Heathrow to Dover via Gatwick, HS4; a light railway from Staines, promoted by Spelthorne Council; the Heathrow Southern Railway, a link from Heathrow to Woking, which they spent over £2 million developing; and my company the Windsor Link, which combined the western and southern links to Heathrow into one holistic solution, saving over £1 billion versus building both with the bonus of improving congestion and air quality in what is a nationally significant strategic pinch point just west of the airport.

All of us were defeated, however. Officials hired consultants, many of whom were former officials, to conduct a secretive ‘market sounding’. The anonymous respondents apparently preferred the status quo, no competition, just to be told what to do. Having pretended to consider the various ideas, officials decided that a sixth idea, their own, was the best. Grayling was forced to explain to Parliament why taxes on some of the poorest communities in London would increase to pay for rich people to get to the airport more quickly.

Market-Led Proposals had become government-led proposals, the government monopoly reaffirmed.

My experience of this was a rare invitation to the Department for a debrief. Sitting opposite my colleagues and me were the officials in charge of the process. We were told that they had looked at competition in Italy but had concluded that all it led to was corruption.

What shocked me (but shouldn’t have) was the attendance of the official in charge of that sixth idea. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the individual; as with all the Civil Servants I have met, he was trying to do his best. It was that it was just that it was like selling BMW cars to the Government and then learning that the government buyer worked for Mercedes.

I felt ashamed that had led my team into a trap. It wasn’t that we hadn’t seen it coming. We had carefully explained that our first phase was complementary to any Heathrow link. We and many others had also responded to the Government’s consultation, called for openness and fairness, and received assurances. It was that, naively, I had believed them. Wiser people than me had stayed out of the competition altogether.

The tragedy is that two years later this Heathrow link is no closer to being built. The same is true of western access to Heathrow: officials have been promising to submit planning permission by Christmas for the last four years.

Much worse is that it is also true of a myriad of other rail schemes across the country. The official list of rail schemes actually being progressed is a sad reflection of our collective failure to meet the needs of the public. The last page of this document, of ideas not-invented-here, what officials call ‘third party schemes’, is blank.

The new Government is promising to increase investment in transport, but haven’t we been here before? Stephen Buyers renationalised Railtrack 20 years ago and abandoned spending restraints. How realistic is it that the same input to the same system will result in different outcomes?

How do we protect schemes like the Brighton Main Line 2 (given the thumbs-up earlier this month) or a new trans-Pennine route where, even amongst those that break through to some encouraging feedback, almost all eventually lose to doing nothing?

In Network Rail’s Hansford Review, contestability was the theme but at the launch event I attended the consultant hired to write it asked plaintively: but if there is competition who would be in control?

This is the key. In an open competition, nobody fully controls it.

In the encryption competition, the American government got a good result when it stopped trying to fix the outcome. (They had previously tried to imprison Phil Zimmerman, the founder of PGP.) They chose the winners at the end of the competition, not before it started.

More importantly, despite it being all about secrecy, the competition was conducted in public, not just open in the sense that anybody, from anywhere could compete, but open all the way through with every decision debated in public. NIST performed the role of Adam Smith’s ‘impartial observer’.

In my previous ConHome article, I gave credit to Grant Shapps, the new Transport Secretary, for the effective renationalisation of the train operating franchises because this gives an opportunity to remove the conflict of interest that has defeated all his predecessors: that officials are both proponents and judges of their own schemes (breaking Burke’s fundamental rule of good government).

The fake competitions that result (the franchises being another example) aren’t just bad for anybody who wants to improve our railways, public or private: they don’t make the government look good either. Grayling left office with his reputation so battered that even his subsequent appointment as an unpaid trustee of the National Portrait Gallery was controversial. Bernadette Kelly, the Permanent Secretary, was excoriated by the Public Accounts Committee’s Spring Report.

I’m imagining a world where our Transport officials and ministers are praised to the sky, like at NIST. All that it requires is for them to let go, stop picking winners, and let genuinely open competition do that for them.

20 comments for: George Bathurst: We must prize the dead hand of officialdom from our railway network

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