Monday, 2 June 2014

Why can't we think big any more?


Britain has become a rather conservative place. Want to build some houses? It might take you five to ten years. Believe in better infrastructure? You'll have to wait in line behind all the other Private Finance Initative consultants. It's a strange phenomenon, because we as individuals are also getting more and more likely to start up our own businesses.

But there's no doubt it's there. Governments talk of 'new garden cities'. What they mean is a few housing estates in some muddy fields near London, with little imagination so far on display about transport links and amenities: this at a time when we need actual new cities, across the south of England, right now. They announce their total commitment to the controversial HS2 high-speed rail line from London to Birmingham and Manchester, only to be faced with a well-financed and highly-organised campaign against it. Sure, there are some points of light: Great Western rail electrification and Crossrail will really open the capital up on its western flank.

But overall it's a rather depressing picture. The United Kingdom has lost the innovative spark of an Isambard Kingdom Brunel (above) - the very image of a confident, bombastic, take-no-prisoners engineer who combined the art, craft and expertise of truly visionary engineering with a tough-minded commitment to punch through all the inevitable problems at all costs. He didn't always have it his own way. Sometimes he insisted on too much innovation, as with the ill-fated Exeter to Newton Abbot 'atmospheric railway'. But we don't remember those disasters, do we? We marvel at Bristol Suspension Bridge and the Great Western Railway themselves - legacies that we use today, and cost us very little, because we sunk all the capital so long, long ago. Our children will only thank us if we go ahead on similar lines right now. At least it'll be some sort of payback for the debt-laden and insecure economic lives we're building for them as we speak.

Here's some ideas, pleasingly packaged up for you by the BBC: a bridge across the Irish Sea; an east-to-west, Liverpool-to-Hull rail line; a Severn Barrage; trams for Liverpool, Leeds and Bristol; a bridge to the Isle of Wight; full motorway upgrading for the M1 and M11. And so on.

It could be done. At a time when interest rates are very, very low - and when there is a massive infrastructure deficit across a crawling, grinding, angrier-and-angrier transport network - it should make sense on every level. It tells us something very important about ourselves that none of it will probably ever happen. It tells us that the Brunel within each of us is asleep.