The West Coast rail fiasco will probably cost us a lot more than £50m

Try doubling it.

"£50m at the very least" is the latest amount that the West Coast rail fiasco is expected to cost the tax-payer although the cost might be "very much larger".

It would seem the Public Accounts Committee has picked the lowest possible number it can think of (in the grand scheme of government money wasting £50m must seem insignificant to the PAC) thinking that people will say, “oh just £50m, that’s not so bad”, while they mutter in an undertone, hoping no one will hear, “it might be a bit more though”.

For a government that won an election on the importance of cuts, the bonfire of quangos and the sacking of unnecessary civil servants the manifest, barefaced disregard for any money other than your own is, at best, infuriating and at worst just depressing.   

The report from the PAC has said the aborted west coast franchise award was down to a "complete lack of common sense" from "blinkered, rushed" senior officials.

I honestly wish this were true. How simple it would be if this was just a case of lack of common sense, a one off mistake, something even the best of us are guilty of suffering of from time to time.

Sadly, this is a result of a far deeper problem. The truth is many people working for the DfT (as well as the rest of the government) simply do not care if the money is wasted.

As the government further alienates its staff, heavy handedly wielding its cost saving sword, blunders due to a complete lack of care are going to become more common. 

The reality is that we do not know and will probably never know just how much this whole unfortunate mess cost the tax-payer in the end.

I think a good rule to stick to when trying to find the bottom line in the chaos and confusion of any government screw up (there are almost certainly more coming at high speed from Birmingham) is to double any number proffered and hope that’s the worst of it.

Photograph: Getty Images

Billy Bambrough writes for Retail Banker International at VRL financial news.
 

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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from deficit into debt. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.