The news article which is my source puts it slightly more politely than I do – New traffic lights divide opinion is the heading to an article about the allegedly “smart” traffic lights at the Botley Road interchange with the A34. You and I would say that spending sums of this order illustrates perfectly the unreal world of the public services. If we have to cut frontline services now, it is because people like this have been spending enormous sums of money on non-essential frolics. It keeps their budgets up and does wonders for their self-esteem and their CVs. It has brought us to the edge of national bankruptcy. As one of the comments on the news page says:
I have no idea whether the lights have made things better or worse, but at a time when cuts are so deep that we will have to close schools, is this really a priority? We managed pretty well without! Something terribly wrong here.
The first real phase of unnecessary traffic lights and other obstructions began in the early 1970s. There was a popular rumour in Oxford to the effect that “commissions” were paid to those responsible for ordering street furniture. A more plausible reason lay in the kind of people who scurried to take jobs in the newly enlarged local authority sector. At the upper end of schools, careers masters were saying “I don’t think he can aspire to Balliol, but we might get him into St Peter’s”. To those in the less academic classes they would say “He won’t get into the rubbish collection department with grades like that, but Highways are always looking for people with his, er, talents”.
Little men with disappointed wives and children who despised them, people who could not get served in pubs and were ignored in shops, found a way to be noticed. Budgets seemed infinite and the sense of achievement derived from the inconvenience which they caused with their artificial impediments to the traffic-flow was matched by the self-importance which comes from spending other people’s money. The pattern was set, and New Labour’s conviction that the mere spending of money was a benefit is what leads us to £450,000 schemes whose effect is to cause delay.
There is the sense that this is a last hurrah for the big spenders. We have recently seen a bus lane laid down at the northern entrance to Oxford by Oxfordshire County Council and almost immediately pulled up again. I was myself a victim of a recent traffic light experiment in Bicester; perhaps the dull-looking little men standing around watching in their hi-viz jackets sensed the hatred pouring out of the cars stuck in their artificially-introduced tailback near Bicester Village and got cold feet
When you look at expenditure like this, it is easy to see how George Osborne can save millions without touching essential services. It is inevitable that people will lose their jobs, and that is always a cause of regret. The fact is, however, that much of the spending has been of the same kind as we see here. The wasted £450,000 and the extravagant salaries and pensions of those who commission them are only the beginning of the savings to be made. Every worker (real worker, I mean, not a public service drone) who wastes 10 minutes per day at an unnecessary obstruction is simultaneously not contributing to the economy and pumping particulates into the air. Every highways authority has scores of dim people dreaming up schemes like this; their removal will do more than merely remove the direct costs of employing them.
The main point, though, is that we do not have the money to spend on schemes like this.