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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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.