Britain’s infrastructure: the road to nowhere?

Sunday 23 October, 10.00 - 11.30 , Garden Room Utopias


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Video and audio of this debate are available at the bottom of this page.

The bronze bust of Sir Joseph Bazalgette on Victoria Embankment reads ‘flumini vincula posuit’ - ‘he put the river in chains’, a fitting testament to his work in harnessing the Thames to create the sewage system that, in large part, we are still using in London today. At a time when Britain was still on a roll as the first industrialised economy, anything seemed possible. Yet even in the thrusting Victorian era, Bazalgette faced opposition and bureaucracy, despite the fact that it had become abundantly clear that a means of dealing with the city’s growing sewage waste was essential.

Bazalgette’s scheme got built – but how would he fare today? The Thames Tideway Scheme, a 25-kilometre tunnel from west London under the river to Beckton, has faced considerable controversy – again, despite the urgent need to reduce pollution in the Thames. More generally, major infrastructural projects frequently get caught up in disputes, bureaucracy and political dithering. The idea of Crossrail has been around since 1989, but only received parliamentary backing in 2008 and isn’t expected to open till December 2018. HS2, a new rail line linking London to Manchester and Leeds, has not yet started and won’t be complete till 2032. Hinkley Point has been controversially put on hold by the new Prime Minister Theresa May. And there is still no decision at all on another runway for the south-east, with the government putting off the decision on whether to plump for Heathrow or Gatwick (the ‘Boris Island’ Thames Estuary plan having been dismissed). From fracking to nuclear power, big schemes seem endlessly stuck on the drawing board. When even specific projects struggle to get off the ground, what hope is there for grander designs that might fundamentally restructure and enhance life in the UK? Or will the UK government’s National Infrastructure Commission make a difference?

Planners must look on in envy at the speed at which China has created new infrastructure. Since 2007, China has added over 40,000km of railway, 80,000km of expressway and almost 100 extra airports. Many would argue that this explosion of new development reflects badly on the West’s caution and unwillingness to think big. But is China’s record really so laudable? After all, it is a one-party state. How much consultation has gone on before these roads, tracks and runways were built? Does it all make financial and environmental sense? Is Britain stuck in the slow lane of infrastructural development? Are we condemned to spend years arguing over improvements that may be vital to future economic growth – and if so, why? Or does our slowly-but-surely approach ensure that the interests of local residents, taxpayers, the economy and the environment are properly looked after?