‘Vanity project’ is a widely thrown around phrase, much favoured by right wing commentators to describe the schemes introduced or championed by left-leaning politicians. The implication is clear: this is a project that will involve spending your hard-earned money on a scheme with no better purpose than to inflate an already engorged political ego.
Hence why I have seen, in the past few weeks, projects as diverse as the extension of free nursery places to two year olds, the 2012 Olympics, Housing Information Packs, the nationalisation of Northern Rock and the upgrade of the West Coast Mainline all described as ‘vanity projects’. You get the feeling that 1900’s answer to Andrew Gilligan probably described the Labour Party as a ‘Keir Hardie vanity project’, and that Ye Olde Dailie Maile carried an editorial in 1215 denouncing Magna Carta as a ‘shameful vanity project dreamt up by lefty-liberal barons’.
Inevitably, the truth is normally a little more complex than that suggested by the glib phrase. But what we can quite easily work out is the rationale under which it may be deployed by some of our more reactionary columnists and leader writers.
Step 1) Is this a scheme being proposed by a politician who would probably have voted for the Great Reform Act?
Step 2) Do I suspect that this scheme will not benefit me as an oppressed white, middle-class, well-paid male living in a not unpleasant part of London?
Step 3) Can I make a tenuous case that this scheme involves the use of public money to buy the votes of highly suspect groups, such as ‘ethnics’, ‘wimmin‘ (© Evening Standard 2008), single parents or the poor?
Step 4) Will this scheme be completed far enough in the future that everyone will have forgotten how I described it if it proves to be a success, or if it is already completed/underway, is it an obscure enough project that I can misrepresent or ignore any success it may have had?
If the answer to all these questions is ‘yes’, then – bingo! – you’ve got yourself a ‘vanity project’ (or ‘collosal ego trip at the taxpayers’ expense’, another favourite).
And just to illustrate this phenomenon in action, let’s take a look at some of the schemes that our dear old Evening Standard have described as being ‘vanity projects’ and some which have unaccountably slipped the net:
Those ‘vanity projects’ as reported by the Evening Standard
Greenwich Waterfront and East London Transit Schemes (Cost: £40m) – we’ve discussed these here before. Rather than rehash all my previous arguments about why these schemes aren’t quite the irrelevancy that self-appointed transport expert Andrew Gilligan claims, I’ll just quote in full one of the comments (yes, a sensible reader’s comment on a newspaper website!) left with the article in question:
As a news reporter turned columnist, Andrew should know the golden rule: always check your facts.
To describe the transit schemes in east and south-east London as “nothing more than new bus routes, running almost entirely on existing roads, indistinguishable in every meaningful way from the buses that already run there” shows that you have NOT done so.
Let me put you straight on the Greenwich Waterfront Transit which will connect Thamesmead and Woolwich with North Greenwich.
Most of this route is on new bus lanes or bus ways, with junctions at which buses will have priority. It is a much-needed improvement to the transport network in our part of London.
Meet me in West Thamesmead – a growing commuter neighbourhood – at 8am any day next week and I will demonstrate to you exactly why the GWT is essential, not a vanity project. But be warned: you will probably be standing up on crowded buses and waiting at bus stops for the best part of an hour. So wear comfortable shoes!
– Ken Welsby, London, UK
The ‘obscure’ Cross River Tram (Cost: c £900m) – obscure if you live in West Greenwich, maybe, but perhaps not so much if you hail from Peckham, Camberwell, Brixton, Kings Cross or Camden Town. So obscure, in fact, that the detailed consultation on the tram’s routing obtained 5,065 responses. And anyone who has ever tried to squeeze on board a number 12 bus from Peckham to central London might find that their personal vanity extends to wanting the extra capacity a tram would bring. Given that two of the largest regeneration projects in Britain are premissed on the tram linking some of London’s most deprived and transport-starved estates, vanity project wouldn’t be my first choice of descriptor for the scheme.
London House, Brussels (Cost: £415,000) – given that every other region of the UK (including Highlands and Islands, pop. 433,000) has come to the same conclusion as London that representation in Brussels is a worthwhile expenditure for the exposure to and intelligence from the European institutions that they provide, either there are a lot of vanity projects out there, or someone’s called this one wrong. Not much movement from Boris on closing it yet, either.
Unspecifed LDA ‘vanty projects’ (Cost: unspecified) – Gilligan won’t tell us what he’s talking about, so we can’t really assess the accuracy of his claim. Assuming he is taking his lead from the oh-so-independent Forensic Audit Panel, whose report (conclusion: a Conservative administration will spend its money a bit differently from a Labour one – that’ll be £465,000 please) seemed to be a bit fixated on LDA support for the Biota aquarium project being developed as part of the Silvertown Quays development in Newham. Obviously this particular scheme was picked on as it would be easy to pin this down as a ‘vanity project’ for a former Mayor known to have more than a passing interest in things that go splosh in the night. Not that aquarium-based attractions have ever proved succesful in attracting visitors to deprived areas, of course.
‘Cycing-for-the-blind initiatives’ (Cost: £0, didn’t actually exist)
‘Gay Bengali workplace sustainability forums’ (Cost: £0, didn’t actually exist) – apparently, Mr Gilligan made these up as the sort of things that the LDA might have funded. But didn’t. But would have been vanity projects if they had. But they didn’t. So there. So why can’t he quote any actual examples? Your guess is as good as mine.
…and those schemes that are definitely not vanity projects
A new London airport in the Thames (Cost: probably about £30bn for the airport, feasibility study £unknown)– a ‘great idea’ (says Mr Gilligan), despite it having been rejected as impractical on numerous occasions in past decades, being on the wrong side of London, being in a vitally important area for birdlife, being next to a lot of unexploded munitions, having the potential to economically devastate much of outer west London, probably destroying the economic viability of Crossrail and running contrary to the need to limit aviation emissions. But it will make it a bit easier to sleep at night if you live in Hammersmith. So it is in no way a vanity project by the Mayor and failed budget airline entrepreneur turned policing chief Kit Malthouse. Oh no.
A bespoke bus to replace existing buses half way through their lifespan (Cost: c£100m but still not properly costed) – because what a bus network with fast growing passenger numbers needs is a new bus that will cut capacity and accessibility, require more vehicles on the roads, cost more to develop and build as it isn’t off-the-peg and require a practically redundant second member of staff. Particularly when the policy is based on received opinion and bungled statistics. No, what is missing in London’s transport planning is nostalgia, not common sense. Well known fact. (Dave Cole makes the case for bendy buses well here – I seem to remember predicting during the Mayoral election that the 521 and the Strand underpass would be where Boris’ policy would start to fall apart.)
Problem is, you see, these just don’t meet the vanity project rationale. So we’ll just have to classify them as well thought-out, sensible and value for money proposals. And who could possibly disagree?