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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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