Infrastructure populism: on the politics of building big, or failing to

When it comes to infrastructure, they’re all all talk. Image: Getty.

It is famously said of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini that at least while he was dragging his country into a war in which over half a million of his citizens died, he was also making sure the trains ran on time. The murdering fascist wasn’t all bad: he did sort out Italy’s railways.

Now, shockingly, it turns out this is all complete claptrap and Mussolini actually did very little to improve the rail system. Popular beliefs to the contrary are all just part of the fascist myth that he built up around himself to validate his governance.

It’s fake news, but the widely believed claim strikes to the core of a bigger issue: politicians hijacking transport as an easy way to connect with voters. Because, despite Chris Grayling’s best efforts, getting from A to B is an aspect of modern life that can hardly be ignored; effective roads are required to keep the population fed and public transport needed to get people to work.

Like Mussolini before him, this is something Donald Trump has recognised. Among the cries of “lock her up” and “bad hombres”, a key part of his presidential election campaign was a promise to ramp up infrastructure investment. Trump was fed up that other countries “look at our infrastructure as being sad”. As someone who has tried to use Amtrak, the US domestic rail service, I’ve got to say I agree with him.

But it’s easy to complain; it’s following through with a solution that’s the real problem. Only 13 per cent of the $1.5trn Trump hopes to raise is going to come from federal purse, with the rest funded by… erm… something else. It’s in this delivery that this went from being a realistic promise of change to just saying what people want to hear.


On this side of the pond, we have a similar problem: Boris Johnson. A politician who regardless of the issue in question will suggest the answer is an absurd, massive infrastructure project in thinly veiled efforts to grab headlines and deflect from any helpful debate.

His stint as London mayor was dominated by such ill-thought out infrastructure projects. The new Routemaster buses and the Emirates Cable Car were a big waste of money. Aborted suggestions include the Garden Bridge Project, which managed to waste another £46m in public money without even being built, and the Thames Estuary Airport.

More recently, on the prospect of a hard Brexit and lorries queuing up the M20, Johnson proposed a road bridge between England and France. To solve the issue of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, he called for another sea-crossing bridge. You get the idea.

So for Johnson, big projects are a cure-all for difficult problems, which can catch the headlines and allow any reasoned criticism to be easily be framed as not “believing in Britain”. 

Unlike Johnson and Trump, the Hungarian President, Victor Orban, has managed to follow through with his big projects. Unfortunately, they have nothing to do with infrastructure. He has instead spent hundreds of millions of Euros on building football stadiums around the country all to the delight of football-mad Hungarians. This, in a country with one of the worst poverty rates in Europe.

In his 2006 study on the future of high-speed rail in the UK, the director of News Corporation and former CEO of British Airways, Sir Rod Eddington, warned against being “seduced by ‘grands projets’ with speculative returns.” His message was intended for politicians but, in a world of Trumps, Johnsons and Orbans, is surely a lesson that should be learnt by everyone.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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