Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The price of infrastructure- both physical and social

It is something of a disappointment to note that the proposed HS-2 rail link will now not be linked to Heathrow. Any such link is now set to be delayed until the 2030s. So London will have a substantially weaker transport system than Paris for several decades into the future. A weaker infrastructure reduces competitiveness, and as we are seeing this week cutting corners - for example on snow cleaning equipment- eventually ends up costing far more money than it saves.

Yet that has been the British way now for several decades.

"Make do and mend" might have been a good slogan for the Second World War, it is not good enough in a world where China is building, in a single year, more highway than Britain has done in 30 years. Yet the root of the apparently necessary cost cutting on physical infrastructure remains the astonishing damage that Labour inflicted on the British social infrastructure. The imposition of absurd health and safety legislation combined with the diktat of an over mighty state has dramatically reduced the capacity of Society to handle crisis. Once upon a time voluntary associations like the WRVS could be relied upon to store blankets and tea urns- that staple of British togetherness- to use on occasions where, for example, large numbers of motorists got trapped in the snow.

It was precisely these organisations- WRVS, St Johns Ambulance, and so on- that provided respite in emergencies that were most damaged by Labour's arrogant view that the "State knows best". Now the flexibility is gone - and despite David Cameron's ambitions to resurrect these groups through "The Big Society", I am sceptical that these groups can be restored once they are lost.

The social infrastructure has been eroded by wider trends- the need for couples to have both incomes in order to afford a home, the increasing pressure of an affluent society where the most expensive thing is time. The increasing abuse that such volunteers face in places like hospitals where a Saturday night turns emergency rooms into a drunken parody of a field station on the Somme. All of this is driving people even further away from volunteering. The problem is that in a typically British way the country has botched its reforms. The cost of turning volunteers into professionals is beyond us, but the volunteers have now gone. The result is a poorer and nastier society.

Meanwhile even the most basic and necessary improvements to our physical infrastructure are delayed by a Stalinist planning procedure that nevertheless gives every barrack room lawyer their say. Big projects are delayed by endless wrangling that does not alter the final decision much- but does delay it by years or even decades. The abdication of the authority of politicians to the bureaucratic planning process is a prime example of political cowardice and a major failure of leadership.

So amid an increasingly failing social infrastructure- where the discourse is shrill and often ignorant as people take their cue from the no-nothing press- the frustration of working with decayed and under-invested physical infrastructure only adds to the sense of baffled anger that seems the prime characteristic of the UK today.

I fear the hopes of the Prime Minister of repairing the Social infrastructure through rebuilding the "Big Society" are doomed. It is very easy to turn an aquarium into fish soup, it is very difficult to reverse the process. The price of all this is that our physical infrastructure may end up going the same way.


Anonymous said...

"It is something of a disappointment to note that the proposed HS-2 rail link will now not be linked to Heathrow."

I don't think so.

Flying is bad for the environment - especially short-haul internal flights. And an eventual dead end given its use of fossil fuel and the low chance of replacing fossil fuels with any system which will actually enable a heavily laden passenger aircraft to actually get off the ground.

Every time the infrastructure is changed given people more options about where and how often they travel people persist in doing the worst possible thing. e.g. the building of the M25 resulted in more people moving away from the south-east and using the M25 for long-distance commuting purposes.

I'd be happy to see it made more difficult to get to Heathrow. Then it might become possible to comfine its use to long distance overseas flights and drop ridiculous short-haul ones.

And we therefore do desperately need more rail capacity - whether it needs to be high speed or not I'm not sure. But it's time we stopped pandering to the airline industry and made it pay its true costs.

Cicero said...

Most things that human beings do have environmental consequences, and Aviation is fractional compared to shipping, which is by far the major carbon emitter.

We do have fossil fuel alternatives, the issue is cost- and the fact that you need a constant form of energy, which is likely to be enhanced solar, but more likely in the short term nuclear.

The fact is that by isolating Heathrow you make it MORE likely that people will choose to connect from long haul to short haul services, because it is such a pain to get from -say- Manchester overground.

If we could connect the runways of the South - the London airports with airports as far north as Manchester and Leeds Bradford by HS link, then connections become easier and it reduces the pressure on Heathrow.

However, it is moot point, because the disastrous handling of the snow by BAA more or less condemns Heathrow to lose a lot of ground to Schipol and Charles de Gaulle which ARE connected to the local high speed rail systems. It means that London becomes a lot less attractive as a place to do business, with the result that we lose a lot of jobs.

I agree we should understand and minimise environmental cost as far as possible, but that should not include making things deliberately more difficult by under investing. We have already seen the consequences of under investing in snow equipment- and huge, stationary traffic jams and planes stuck across the planet are about as un-green as you can get.