Don’t shoot the visionaries!
On Wednesday, Lord Foster launched his plan for ‘The Thames Hub’. This £50 billion plan is a vast infrastructure and regeneration project on a scale many perhaps cannot fully comprehend. However, as with all huge infrastructure projects (and my personal experience with HS2 currently is a reference) the naysayers have come out in force, egged on by the media, with the usual rhetoric of too much money, planet-trashing, ‘pie in the sky’, it can never happen et cetera et cetera.
To be fair, Britain has a strong and proud record of producing people who always say it will never happen, and, to be fair, they have successfully proved themselves right by preventing it! Saying no is the easy option. Is it affordable? Usually it is as it will generate revenue plus additional economic growth and wider benefits that are almost impossible to quantify until the project is real and can be tangibly felt. Think of the Channel Tunnel as an example. Could we ever imagine being without it now?
Are projects like this luxuries rather than essentials? Lord Foster sets out a global transport hub that is a marker, a reference for what every country in the 21st century will need – and the first one or two will reap the maximum benefit in terms of world player status and the exponential growth sought.
The proposal is for a global transport hub (equivalent to a world city’s transport links) with an international airport, an international port, an intermodal freight terminal (sea, air and land by road and rail), national and international high speed rail connections, plus massive national rail connectivity and upgrades along with links into the road network.
But then Lord Foster goes further with an idea that I discussed at conference with the UK president of Alstom, Steve Burgin. If you are building infrastructure, then build real full capability, futureproofed infrastructure. New railway lines should have fibreoptics, water mains, sewage, electricity all using the same alignment and land. They are all critical infrastructure of strategic national importance to UK plc. A new Thames barrier (which is also needed now) is also part of the Thames Hub proposal with the same thinking – that big works, projects of such strategic importance must be supported and also scoped to maximise benefit and utility, which will ultimately prove their worth.
The proposal for a new international airport in the Thames estuary is a bold vision. But Lord Foster’s point is to make us consider how do we best design and create well-connected international gateways that can do the best job for UK plc now and in 50 years’ time? My view is that we should look afresh at Heathrow rather than the Thames estuary and consider what our vision should look like for connecting people with places, jobs and the future growth creation we need to see.
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking about the here and now when there are currently a lot of difficult issues to grapple with. But pretending that we are too busy to look into the future and plot our vision of where we need to be is not to our advantage. Lord Foster’s vision is to be admired. The Thames Hub is epic and hugely impressive: it makes us think about the questions we will need to answer, it inspires us to think big and be creative. By sniping at the visionaries we will all lose out because we end up with short-term solutions that are not even good enough to be second best.
Alex Burrows is head of strategy at Centro and is a member of Sutton Coldfield CLP. This article represents his personal opinion.