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.
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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.