Crying wolf on public works makes people less likely to back the projects we really need, says Eleanor Jolliffe

Eleanor Jolliffe

I am becoming somewhat alarmed by the way proposals for public works and infrastructure projects are being tossed into soundbites and political press releases to give the impression of constructive action.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, but the latest flurry of articles and tweets around Boris and the cabinet re-shuffle have stuck in my mind.

Boris Johnson’s ’interesting’ proposal of a bridge between Britain and France is, according to experts, not an impossibility, though the business case seems about as considered as that of the Garden Bridge. I do not find a future of cordial relationships between France and a Britain outside the EU objectionable. But I do object to the co-opting of public works as an over-the-top metaphor for this goal. A cynical part of me also wonders if Boris just enjoys ideas that begin with a “B”. Boris Bikes took off; why not Boris Bridges?

Donald Trump’s infamous border wall must be included in any collection of politically divisive uses of public works projects. This wall is also technically possible, and indeed has even been prototyped. Whether it is necessary or would be effective is another matter. Let us hope the hordes Trump believes it will keep out never discover ladders or tunnels.

The feasibility of madcap projects like these or even their efficacy seems to be beside the point. The main weight of their political capital lies in their announcement with a full roll-out of glossy CGIs, ideas competitions and physical prototyping.

These “silver bullet” solutions to complex and nuanced problems are all boiled down to an easily supportable, easily understandable picture of a bridge or a wall. Something is being done. If they are prepared to spend [insert large invented figure here] it must be the solution. Of course if, by some fluke, these projects are ever finished and successful in their intended purpose, huge political capital can be mined. If they are unsuccessful a scapegoat can easily be found to explain why [insert oppositional idea/ movement here] was to blame.

Tony Blair’s government is a prime example of the power of building to make it look like something is being done. His mantra of “education, education, education” certainly appeared to be being fulfilled by the construction of many schools using PFI. We are still dealing with the consequences (good and bad) of this political capital decades later, because architecture is not a poster campaign or a political catchphrase and should not be applied as a short-term fix.

The “permanence” of building makes all political projects using architecture or civil engineering look like they are considering the long-term impact. The trouble is that many of the more recently promoted projects can’t be long-term solutions – the thinking doesn’t go nearly deep enough.

For me the greatest danger isn’t endless mad suggestions splashed across newspaper front pages but the growing scepticism about the efficacy and viability of proposed infrastructure improvements (HS2, Crossrail and so on). The longer politicians use these types of projects to score cheap political points the harder it will be to secure public backing for necessary and important projects that might sound similarly cynical when first announced.

The Garden Bridge may have been a lovely concept but it detracted from and delayed decisions on highly necessary Thames crossings east of central London such as the Silvertown tunnel. The sparring over Heathrow’s expansion has undermined the necessity of increasing international flight capacity at London airports. And the political point-scoring surrounding anything rail means any announcements on HS2a, b, 3 or Crossrail 3 are likely to be treated as a grab for positive headlines rather than necessary infrastructure upgrades.

Infrastructure is an important and vital part of government work. The irresponsibility of politicians cheapening its value for short-term publicity will harm both the reputations of the professions undertaking the work, and the ability of our country to function as a 21st-century economy.