New Sky Thinking

Thought 08


November 2012

Building 2/11/12

Simon Foxell, practice principal The Architects Practice, and member of built environment think tank The Edge

There is no doubt that the UK should be investing in its infrastructure as part of a long-term strategy for the future of the UK. But in a time of straitened budgets, all investment needs to pass a series of stringent tests.

Will the investment, both financially and environmentally, pay back, lead to a stronger, more stable economy, or make the UK more efficient and effective at delivering more for less? Will it increase self-sufficiency and reduce reliance on imported resources, deliver increased social and environmental benefits, or develop the UK’s global political and corporate leadership? Will it contribute to achieving the 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 required by the 2008 Climate Change Act and various international agreements, or reduce greenhouse gas emissions per unit of output?

Given the benefit of the doubt, greater airport capacity, whether additional runways at existing airports or a new airport in the Thames Estuary, may partly succeed on the first two criteria, even though the jury is far from decided; but it is difficult to see how it can deliver on the others.

Continuous economic growth on its own is a chimera, and a dangerously addictive one at that

On the other hand, it is not very challenging to draw up a list of infrastructure investments, including transport and clean energy generation, that have
a far better call on our available resources.

At present, all the arguments in favour of airport expansion are couched in terms of enabling economic growth, but continuous growth on its own is a chimera, and a dangerously addictive one at that. Over the past two centuries growth has been achieved only by burning greater and greater amounts of fossil fuels; fuels that are beginning to be economically and environmentally punishing to extract and use, despite the short-term availability of shale gas.

The future for a prosperous UK must lie in finding a way for us to live well within our means and our share of the Earth’s carrying capacity.

The transition to a more stable economic system will require huge investment, but will be very rewarding in the longer term, both domestically
and in our ability to export internationally. Increasing runway capacity has very little part to play in that transition.

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