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.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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