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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.