What Willy Brandt International Airport tells us about infrastructure spending

Bigger isn't better.

The myth of German efficiency:

Willy Brandt International Airport, named for Germany's famed Cold War leader, was supposed to have been up and running in late 2011… After four publicly announced delays, officials acknowledged the airport won't be ready by the latest target: October 2013. To spare themselves further embarrassment, officials have refused to set a new opening date…

German media have tracked down a list of tens of thousands of technical problems. Among them: Officials can't even figure out how to turn the lights off. Thousands of light bulbs illuminate the gigantic main terminal and unused parking lots around the clock, a massive energy and cost drain that appears to be the result of a computer system that's so sophisticated it's almost impossible to operate.

Every day, an empty commuter train rolls to the unfinished airport over an eight-kilometer-long (five-mile) stretch to keep the newly-laid tracks from getting rusty, another example of gross inefficiency. Meanwhile, hundreds of freshly planted trees had to be chopped down because a company delivered the wrong type of linden trees; several escalators need to be rebuilt because they were too short; and dozen of tiles were already broken before a single airport passenger ever stepped on them.

It might be entertaining to poke fun – and god knows it's nice to hear a story about this sort of construction-project-gone-wrong in some other country for once – but it's a good reminder that massive infrastructure projects are hard. Like, really, really hard to do. They require immense co-ordination of millions of moving parts, and anything which goes wrong frequently has knock-on effects which reverberate throughout the entire organisation.

That's why the class of things which we lump together as "infrastructure spending" deserves a bit more disaggregation than we currently give it.

The most obvious divide is between so-called "shovel ready" projects and those which are only on the drawing-board, or just a glimmer in a politician's eye. No matter what the final bill for them might be, it will be many years before ideas like Crossrail 2 or new nuclear power stations actually start costing serious amounts of money – and thus many years until any stimulative effect of those projects kicks in. On top of that, the first few years of the project will be putting money into relatively healthy sectors of the economy like legal advice, accounting and planning, only providing stimulus to the beleaguered construction and manufacturing sectors once ground is broken.

But there's also a divide between megaprojects, like the Willy Brandt Airport, and smaller infrastructure investment, like renovating a local train station, or resurfacing a road. The latter can not only get going much faster – and thus hopefully provide stimulus during, rather than after, this recession – but also doesn't have the millions of potential failure points. Now, local infrastructure projects are frequently run just as badly as national ones; but the chance of a four year delay on a six month project is, at least, slim.

So when we say we want infrastructure spending, what that means in practice is a lot of small, nimble, shovel-ready projects.

An aerial view shows the 'Willy Brandt' Berlin-Brandenburg International. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.