Think big, build small

Using the fox in Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay as inspiration, let’s think about large infrastructure projects in an incremental and pragmatic way.

I have come to a stage in my career, as an architect planner, where I increasingly believe that there are two very different philosophies of planning. Like Isaiah Berlin’s Hedgehog and the Fox, these competing philosophies tell us a lot about the predispositions of those who espouse them, the way we attempt to shape the future of our regions and cities and the times that we live in.
 
In Berlin’s seminal essay, the hedgehog knows one big thing and relates all of life’s apparent complexity including the incidental to this big thing. The fox, on the other hand, knows many things and naturally goes about piecing them together to form a patchwork quilt within overarching strategies or visioning.
 
I write therefore not to propose yet another project but a different way of thinking about aviation provision. Before any choice is made between a third runway at Heathrow or a new estuary airport or any other singular grand projet, there needs to be a wider search for the right set of solutions for London, the south-east and for the UK overall. 
 
Thinking like the fox, I wonder whether there are interim deliverable solutions that don’t rely on bigness, that can unlock the problem and begin transformation, in an incremental and pragmatic way, while not preventing the bigger things happening at a later date.
 
Closing major airports, building giant new hubs or any other grand gestures must only be considered in the light of looking first at what we have now, and how those resources can be better used, not only within themselves but in the light of our network of other transport systems. In this we must include the addition of high speed rail and all the other substantial rail improvements that will change and rebalance the potential of the total system.
 
Examples of the sequential and incremental steps toward this could include much better surface links to Gatwick and Stansted, with additional runway capacity closely aligned to demand, all working together within a bigger overarching strategy of a constellation system of  three dual runway airports serving London – smart and appropriate solutions to our aviation needs, capitalising on clever IT and logistic and network solutions that could be:
  • provided incrementally, responding to demand, rather than being a big bang project that will take many years to deliver
  • affordable and low risk, not a huge initial investment and very high risk
  • provide an optimum performance level in terms of capacity and connectivity
  • be a big picture, resilient, sustainable and appropriate set of solutions consolidating and intensifying existing employment and infrastructure in the heart of Britain.
The same cannot be said for all of the big hardware of the proposed new airports in the Thames Estuary and elsewhere, some of them requiring the dismantling of our already successful “aerotropolis” at Heathrow and all of the hundreds of thousands of jobs and business that go with it. These options also bring with them a considerable embedded, and ongoing, carbon emissions cost, for building a new airport from scratch and for the additional travel to a single airport east of London.
 
These solutions cannot be delivered for decades by which time competitors in Europe will be out of sight.
 
To turn to the question of system resilience and of competition - a world city and mega metropolis on the scale of London shouldn’t put all its eggs in one basket – let’s learn from what is working elsewhere – the similar “constellation systems” of New York and Tokyo served by 2 to 3 competing airports, as compared to the smaller non-metropolitan cities like Hong Kong, Frankfurt and Amsterdam that  have a single big airport – it’s all a question of balance and scale. Don’t over simplify, but intensify, integrate and connect.
 
Let us look at all of the options, and whether we can use existing and proposed airport and transport infrastructure to incrementally form an evolutionary and networked answer to the call for airport capacity – a constellation system of airports. 
 
Sir Terry Farrell is principal at architect planners Farrells Jargon buster.
 
 
Building site. Photograph: Getty.
Dan Kitwood/Getty
Show Hide image

How can London’s mothers escape the poverty trap?

Despite its booming jobs market, London’s poverty rate is high. What can be done about it?

Why are mothers in London less likely to work than their counterparts across the country, and how can we ensure that having more parents in jobs brings the capital’s high child poverty rates down?

The answers to these two questions, examined in a new CPAG report on parental employment in the capital, may become increasingly nationally significant as policymakers look to ensure jobs growth doesn’t stall and that a job becomes a more much reliable route out of poverty than it is currently – 64 per cent of poor children live in working families.

The choice any parent makes when balancing work and family life is deeply personal.  It’s a choice driven by a wide range of factors but principally by what parents, with their unique viewpoint, regard as best for their families. The man in Whitehall doesn’t know best.

But the personal is also political. Every one of these personal choices is shaped, limited or encouraged by an external context.   Are there suitable jobs out there? Is there childcare available that is affordable and will work for their child(ren)? And what will be the financial gains from working?

In London, 40 per cent of mothers in couples are not working. In the rest of the country, the figure is much lower – 27 per cent. While employment rates amongst lone parents in London have significantly increased in recent years, the proportion of mothers in couples out of work remains stuck at about 12 percentage points higher than the rest of the UK.

The benefits system has played a part in increasing London’s lone parent employment rate. More and more lone parents are expected to seek work. In 2008, there was no obligation on single parents to start looking for work until their youngest child turned 16. Now they need to start looking when their youngest is five (the Welfare Reform and Work Bill would reduce this down to three). But the more stringent “conditionality” regime, while significant, doesn’t wholly explain the higher employment rate. For example, we know more lone parents with much younger children have also moved into jobs.  It also raises the question of what sacrifices families have had to make to meet the new conditionality.  

Mothers in couples in London, who are not mandated to work, have not entered work to the same level as lone parents. So, what is it about the context in London that makes it less likely for mothers in couples to work? Here are four reasons highlighted in our report for policymakers to consider:

1. The higher cost of working in London is likely to play a significant role in this. London parents are much less likely to be able to call on informal (cheaper or free) childcare from family and friends than other parts in the country: only one in nine children in London receives informal childcare compared to an average of one in three for England. And London childcare costs for under 5s dwarf those in the rest of the country, so for many parents support available through tax credits is inadequate.

2. Add to this high housing and transport costs, and parents are left facing a toxic combination of high costs that can mean they see less financial rewards from their work than parents in other parts of the country.

3. Effective employment support can enable parents to enter work, particularly those who might have taken a break from employment while raising children. But whilst workless lone parents and workless couples are be able to access statutory employment support, if you have a working partner, but don’t work yourself, or if you are working on a low wage and want to progress, there is no statutory support available.

4. The nature of the jobs market in London may also be locking mums out. The number of part time jobs in the capital is increasing, but these jobs don’t attract the same London premium as full time work.  That may be partly why London mums who work are more likely to work full time than working mums in other parts of the country. But this leaves London families facing even higher childcare costs.

Parental employment is a thorny issue. Parenting is a 24-hour job in itself which must be balanced with any additional employment and parents’ individual choices should be at the forefront of this debate. Policy must focus on creating the context that enables parents to make positive choices about employment. That means being able to access the right support to help with looking for work, creating a jobs market that works for families, and childcare options that support child development and enable parents to see financial gains from working.

When it comes to helping parents move into jobs they can raise a family on, getting it right for London, may also go a long way to getting it right for the rest of the country.