Hugo Rifkind

Heathrow and the strange, far-off days when Britain actually built things

From railways to nuclear power stations, we have no shortage of exciting projects that aren’t quite happening

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

Heathrow. The whole British story is there. Reading up around that debacle last week, I came across the eye-watering — and I think true — claim that, over the course of the second world war, Britain built 444 airfields. Four hundred and forty four. Although not all in the United Kingdom, probably. Some will have been in far-off lands, where Johnny Foreigner could be bought off in exchange for a pretty goat, or just shouted at, at gunpoint, until he went away. Hundreds, though, will have been here, on British soil — where it has now taken us over half an actual century to not quite build a new runway at Heathrow. 444. This is what we use to be able to do.

So also trains. Crossrail is finally happening, with holes dug and buildings torn down and built again; they can’t cancel it now. All 73 miles of it, largely underground, will be with us by 2019, a mere six decades since somebody first thought of it, and only four since they came up with the name. HS2 is more wobbly, admittedly, but we’ve only been thinking about that one since the 1980s. Go back to the railway mania of the mid-1800s, though, and we once laid 5,000 miles of railway in seven years.

Or there’s houses. Everybody knows we aren’t building nearly enough, and the ones we are building are half frauds anyway; existing dwellings chopped in half, bed in the annex and a loo in the broom cupboard. Because it’s hard, building houses, isn’t it? Neighbours complain, planning laws are complex and the finances bite you on the backside. Yet once, in a period of time equivalent to the 25-year span between John Major taking office and now, do you know what we managed to create? Pretty much all of recognisable Stevenage, Crawley, Hemel Hempstead, Harlow, Basildon, Corby, Milton Keynes, Redditch, Runcorn, Telford, Welwyn Garden City, Hatfield, Peterborough, Livingstone and Cumbernauld. Among others.

That was the big postwar new-town boom. And sure, politicians today still speak of building new towns, only not without sounding utterly mad. ‘I shall build ten eco-towns!’ Gordon Brown used to say, quite a lot, and it made him sound deranged, as though he might have well been saying, ‘Also, there shall be a unicorn ranch on the moon!’ And, of course, aside from the ongoing construction at North West Bicester (6,000 new homes, whoopdie doo) none of it happened, nor did anybody expect it to. Once we could have done, though. Or at least once it wasn’t so crazy to imagine we might.

Then there are nuclear power stations. Nineteen completed between 1956 and 1995, and since then… zzz. Nothing until two years ago, when there began some unconvincing and seemingly half-arsed wibbling about getting the Chinese or French to do it. Will they? Will they, though?

What has happened to us? What have we become? I make no particular case for any particular project; I know there are valid objections to Heathrow, to HS2, to crazy Boris Island, and to everything else. There were probably valid objections to every one of those 444 airfields, though. There were probably valid objections to Milton Bloody Keynes. Yet we still did stuff. Yes, the business districts of central London are again bedecked with cranes, but the business districts of central London might as well be Dubai for all they have to do with anywhere else. The British vibe is one of ‘nah’, pending judicial review, pending not bothering anyway. Every government infrastructure announcement is a roll-call of not-quite-happening yet projects — railways, power stations, sewer tunnels — that never seem to stop not quite starting.

Will they ever? Is a golden age of actually doing stuff again just around the corner? If not, some day soon, I think, even the really mundane achievements will start to amaze us. Motorways. A postal service. Manholes. We will gaze at them like a camel herder who lives in a tent might gaze at the pyramids, wondering how, how, how it was ever done. I don’t give a damn what we do, but for God’s sake let us do something.

Political currency

Time to dust off those bitcoins. The digital currency, best understood as cyberspace’s answer to gold, has enjoyed a bump in value lately, probably due to turmoil in Greece. It’s a mild bump, and looks as if it’s due to speculation rather than actual Greeks, but if I a) could remember where the memory stick with my bitcoins on it was, and b) could remember what you actually do with them, I definitely might.

Interestingly, Yanis Varoufakis, the erstwhile Greek finance minister, is a longtime bitcoin-watcher, and has written about it often. And he’s not a fan.

His objection to bitcoin is precisely what others like about it; that it is apolitical and stands independent from governments and states. Money, he wrote a few years ago, must be subject to political control. ‘And the only decent manner in which such control can be exercised,’ he continued, in a lengthy blogpost explaining why the inhuman maths of bitcoin were not to be admired, ‘is through a democratic, collective agency.’

Exactly like it isn’t, for example, with the euro. Are we still supposed to believe he really wanted Greece to stay in?

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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Show comments
  • I don’t think we should celebrate anything that led to the creation of Runcorn.

  • Precambrian

    “over the course of the second world war, Britain built 444 airfields…. where it has now taken us over half an actual century to not quite build a new runway at Heathrow. 444.”

    Spitfires need shorter runways than 747s, are quieter, and fly fewer sorties than a 24 hour airport.

    “Or there’s houses. Everybody knows we aren’t building nearly enough”

    Not true. There are plenty, but they are taken up by buy-to-letters, immigrants, and second home owners.

    “Then there are nuclear power stations.”

    Build one in the centre of London. They are safe, afterall…

  • Liberty

    What happened was Labour 1945-51. Nationalising six industries, giving legal immunity to unions to blackmail industry so that nothing could be modernised despite getting the biggest share of Marshall aid specifically for that purpose and raising income taxes to 98% including profits from investment ruined us. Understandably, no sane person would invest in the UK or earn a good salary. All this when the US was focussed on domestic markets, no other nation in a position to compete, the UK having a captive market in the Empire and massive demand for everything that we were good at. Meanwhile, Germany and Ludwig Erhard used Marshall aid brilliantly to introduce a market economy from nothing. Ford, GM, etc invested here but their executives were American and paid taxes back in the USA. Understandably, our manufacturing industry died and no-one developed our world leadership in vehicle manufacture, nuclear, IT, aerospace, shipbuilding, etc.

    It wasn’t until Labour were unelectable that Thatcher was able to stop the rot. By then it was too late.

    • greggf

      My own thoughts too Liberty.

      • David John Scott

        But the Tories had 13 years of booming 50s to put that right … and managed to discredit this country at Suez and Cyprus (both whirlwinds whose products we reap today) and set the scene for the scrapyard mentality of the 60s. Can’t blame Labour or the labour.

        • BARROSO

          The fact that you think there were thirteen years in the 50’s makes me question your credibility tbh

          • rtj1211

            Stop being a gormless prat. 1951 – 1964 and you know it well.

        • Roger Hudson

          Yes, why are we still at all friendly towards America after Suez?. I’m not.

      • Diane_Miller

        Makes $76 hourly on the, computer…My Uncle Cooper recently got a fantastic silver Porsche Panamera just by parttime work from a macbook… navigate to this

        Get Work Premium

    • rtj1211

      Absolute rubbish. Conservatives could have privatised easily in the 1950s. Easily. They chose not to. Being in power was more important than doing the right thing? Can’t blame Labour for decisions Conservatives didn’t take. I know it’s impossible for you. But all that says something about is your blinkered attitudes to life.

      • Liberty

        It was politically impossible to reverse Labour union and tax laws then. You’ve heard the saying ‘it is easy to give a dog a bone but not to take it off him afterwards’ Same then.

  • Ron

    Which is why the Tories shouldn’t think what’s left of Labour should be treated as mates who have fallen on hard times. Labour still believe in the Nation wrecking policies of old and unless Cameron sorts out the EU status and immigration it will be ermine for him in 2020.

    • rtj1211

      Why are the Govt subsidies to private rail franchises greater than those to the Nationalised British rail in real terms, if privatisation was such a panacea?

      People like you need to take responsibility for your lies. There need to be consequences for you greater than ‘what an uneducated prejudiced ignoramus’.

      If you were sent to prison for 3 years to work as a slave for writing 10 lies of this kind, you would tell the truth.

      Because you are allowed to write lies with no consequences, you continue with it.

      I am not anti-privatisation per se. What I am anti- is saying that privatisation of profits and socialising of losses is ‘an environment conducive to business’. It is an environment conducive to grand larceny.

      You need to go and educate yourself out of your dogmas and see the world as it is: grey, nuanced and infinitely more complex than your primary school nirvanas.

  • awooble

    The media loves criticising Spain for its pre-crisis spending spree on airports, motorways, arts centres, etc. however all they were doing is what you espouse in this diatribe. Getting things done without worrying too much about the detail. One day, some of these things will have gone into disuse or disrepair, others will have been sold off and others will have become successful, just like the Millenium Dome did, eventually…

    There is always a reason not to do things but clearly a balance needs to be struck between being irresponsible and being simply recalcitrant. For all Britain’s Thatcherite caution in public spending, irresponsible city bankers still led the country to crisis and debt. So if they are going to blow money without a forethought, at least let the architects and urban designers join in the fun.

    • vircantium

      “irresponsible city bankers still led the country to crisis and debt”.

      Right, nothing to do with governments (well, one in paticular) overspending.

  • Bonkim

    Most of the equipment for the next nuclear power station will have to be imported. Britain has stopped making things – manufacturing is less than 10% of GDP.

    • The Real Spartacus

      It’s relative.

      Other parts of the economy have grown, i.e. twelve percent(the actual figure) of the economy in 2015 is greater than the thirty percent in 1970.

      It employs far less(better technology) and notable heavy industries have declined(e.g. steel, shipbuilding) but manufacturing output has actually increased in real terms since 1970. Ironically, if manufacturing made up thirty percent of GDP in 2015 then we would be considerably poorer as a nation.

      • Bonkim

        Yes and Britain is doing well in the other sectors to earn its keep. The point was that manufacturing and R&D form a symbiotic loop a,d loss of manufacturing makes it difficult to sustain R&D in related fields. International manufacturers also look to where there is a competitive edge and the Chinese, Koreans, Japs, and the Germans appear to have the lead in all these areas. Manufacturing is also declining in the US – mechanisation/automation of production systems and high wages for the skilled workers means lower overall demand for the general level of employees and most not needing high-end skills and technical education.

  • David John Scott

    education education education

    • Bonkim

      Too much/easy higher-education attracts the Dumbos and reduces capability.

      • David John Scott

        agree easy is not good for education … “we do these things BECAUSE they are hard”. But not possible to have Too Much.

        • Bonkim

          Too much of anything for equalities’ sake weakens the article. Note higher education in countries like China, Korea and India, even Germany is a highly competitive affair with ruthless selection and examination – Nature does not endow all with the same abilities and those less endowed would do better in crafts and skills training. Pity University education has become the yardstick of progress – regardless of quality and need. Not all graduates are problem solvers. Modern business and industry is highly organized and needs only a few high achievers to function – the rest are cannon fodder and don’t amount to much.

  • Dominic Stockford

    “unicorn ranch” – love it! As much as I loathe a 3rd runway at Heathrow, which is a lot.

  • rtj1211

    When all the super rich wish to exist in tiny tax exile enclaves where major infrastructure projects simply don’t exist, why do you expect it to be at the top of the UK agenda??

    You won’t see great rail projects in Monaco, Nassau, Luxumbourg, Belize or anywhere else, will you??

    The fact is that NPVs for such projects are extremely difficult to calculate and all our control freak spreadsheet-obsessed financiers can’t cope with nuanced catalysis of economic growth can they?

    The zeitgeist is entirely against all such projects and that’s why a generation of not doing them has occurred.

    How many women who spend a generation taking birth control pills find it easy to conceive when they finally come off the pill, eh??

    Britain is rapidly reducing itself to a combination of glorified gambling casinos, entertainment plazas and tourist safari parks.

    Perhaps if we could kick out the investment bankers you might have a chance to fund such schemes? You certainly won’t do it as long as they demand 15% risk-free using ludicrous PFI schemes…………..

    • I wish to hell I’d taken the b. prevention pills. Didn’t need the contraception (hubby doesn’t like it) but no periods would have been a great relief….

  • Harlow was ‘created’? Well bugger me! I thought it was the effluvia of an extra-planetary collision. With Le Corbusier orchestrating.

    What has happened to us?
    Leftism, aka The West Is Bad All Else Is Good

    What have we become?
    Nihilistic relativists with no eye for beauty and no conception of virtue.

  • The short version is that the Morlocks choose to hunker down out of eyesight of the pesky, meddling something-for-nothing Eloi who are today’s Edwardian lounge lizards of the political clarse. This eerie lost British planet of people who knew how to do useful things like building cities and machines and seems to have vanished altogether has not gone anywhere.
    In fairness to The Spectator and its readership I would be surprised if over 3% of its readership has ever used a Kelly’s directory as part of their daily work except for perhaps selling newspapers, marketing investment services or conducting political fundraising.
    It might be interesting to some to discover fully the extent to which old-line manufacturers, some dating back to William and Mary’s reign, are still in the game and doing well. Unfortunately there is no separate discipline where one can obtain a degree in industrial history except in the bafflingly arrogant and most often irrelevant Universe of “soshul stoodies.” The result of this discipline being nonexistent is that SpaceX is de facto using the 1950’s Bristol Stentor power plant to drive their space vehicles yet call it their own design and so far three patent applications in the USA since 2012 which involved the re-invention of Fischer & Tropsch’s 1928 patent award in the field of hydrocarbon catalytic reactions have been slapped down in the courts.
    The author is right to express the implicit concern that now given the money-for-gurning employment options are fading, it is therefore time to learn something beside house-flipping or writing scrips for antipsychotics. For too long the stage-schooled children of those institutions promoting the grimly-misnomered liberal arts have done their little songs and dances for our diversion and to shield our eyes from the reality of one day having to do real work in a competitive environment.
    Then there is the unconquerable, eternal embarassment and associated guilt psychoses hued in the colours of fashion which palsies British thought in this century, all based on the embracing of the presumed moral high ground of ensuring the UK crawls behind developing countries whilst pushing the oppressed and downtrodden victims of capitalistic imperialistic BFA to the front of the class even though in all areas of knowledge those “victim” nations have earned straight F’s.
    To my mind British manufacturing is doing just fine. It has always been a cyclical affair and even during halcyon epochs of demand ye has ta shut the shoppe ta re-tool and fix wot machines ya broke doin’ yer job, which also brings up the issue of clarse warfare which has forever been Britain’s preferred rugby field except it is more fun than an actual scrum plus you can make scads of the ready from that pointless wrestling, cursing and punching. It no longer matters if the bills are paid by industry, it is winning that counts even if it puts squillions out of work through corporate officers’ divorces, workplace substance abuse and other symptoms of class contention.
    I also defy anyone to show me one example of disruptive innovation in new product development in the past 50 years which during its implementation and distribution showed the slightest regard for those whom that innovative device put out of work. Do any of this readership know what full-cycle costing means? (No, I am not referring to “soshul costs” just empirically derived loss of revenue to the main enterprise concerned and its employees). It is silly to complain of the rise and dominance of the social worker and Big Pharma-based social anti-architecture in our collective lives when the carpet-bombing of people’s livelihoods to accomodate disruptive innovation is every New Age industrialist’s default method of shaking cash loose from their market segment.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    “where Johnny Foreigner could be bought off in exchange for a pretty goat, or just shouted at, at gunpoint, until he went away”
    What a racist bigot!

    • Robert Allen

      Are you really as dumb as you’re pretending to be?

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    “Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times”
    Pity he doesn’t stay there.

    • Roger Hudson

      Hugo, sponging off his father’s , now very tarnished reputation, for years. One look at the photos from the Speccie’s summer party tells us what a cliquey establishment world it lives in.

  • DonaldSNelson

    ^^^^^Reset your job with spectator < ***** Find Here

  • AverageGuyInTheStreet

    British workers have been replaced with third world ones. The result is staring us all in the face.

  • Roger Hudson

    Hugo, what an idiot.
    Heathrow was a field for aircraft as long ago as 1914, wasn’t it extra space for Northolt?
    I, as a true liberal,have always hated ’eminent domain’ so hate the way the government basically stole land in 1944 using the 1914 DoRA laws. I also think almost 600 airfields were built with little or no decent compensation, why weren’t they ploughed up and returned after the war?