24th August 2018
The crucial decisions about major infrastructure are made behind closed doors.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 22nd August 2018
Where democracy counts most, it is nowhere to be seen. The decisions that shape the life of a nation are taken behind our backs. With occasional exceptions, public choice is reserved for trivia.
The most consequential choices, as they are the longest-lasting, arguably involve major infrastructure. The number of disasters in this field is remarkable. A classic paper by the economic geographer Bent Flyvbjerg, Survival of the Unfittest, explains that there is an innate tendency on the part of policymakers to choose the worst possible projects, as a result of the lock-in of fixed ideas at an early stage. This is caused, his evidence shows, not by accidental error or even delusional optimism, but by “strategic misrepresentation”. Advisers become advocates, advocates become hucksters, boosting their favoured projects.
The schemes that look best on paper, and are therefore most likely to be adopted, are those that have been scrutinised least. Democratic debate would reveal their flaws. This is why, among planners who wish to leave their mark, it is treated as a threat. To the megalomaniacs who draw lines on maps, public opinion is like landscape features: it must be cleared out of the way.
A striking example is the government’s plan for an Oxford to Cambridge Expressway. A decision to which we have not been party, that will irrevocably change the region it affects, is imminent. The new road, it says, will support the construction of a million homes.
To give you some sense of the scale of this scheme, consider that Oxfordshire will have to provide 300,000 of them. It currently contains 280,000. In 30 years, if this scheme goes ahead, the county must build as many new houses, and the infrastructure, public services and businesses required to support them, as have been built in the past 1,000. A million new homes amounts, in effect, to an Oxford-Cambridge conurbation.
But none of this is up for debate. By the time we are asked for our opinion, there will be little left to discuss but the colour of the road signs. The questions that count, such as whether the new infrastructure should be built, or even where it should be built, will have been made without us.
The justification for this scheme is not transport or housing as an end in themselves. Its objective, according to the National Infrastructure Commission, is to enable the region “to maximise its economic potential”. Without this scheme, the commission insists, Oxford and Cambridge and the region between them “will be left behind, damaging the UK’s global competitiveness.”
This reasoning, you might hope, would prompt some major questions. Is continued growth, in one of the wealthiest regions of the world, desirable? If it is desirable, does it outweigh the acceleration of climate breakdown the scheme will cause? When air pollution already exceeds legal limits, are new roads and their associated infrastructure either appropriate or safe? And are we really engaged in a race with other nations, in which being “left behind” is something to be feared? But these questions are not just closed to debate. They are not even recognised as questions. The megalomaniacs with their pencils, the rulers with their rulers, assume that their unexamined premises are shared by everyone.
All the tendencies against which Bent Flyvbjerg warned are evident. Instead of asking “Do we need this scheme?”, the government agency Highways England, which is supposed to offer objective advice, opens its webpage with the heading “Why we need this scheme”. It claims, against the evidence, that the expressway will enhance the “attractiveness of the region”, and “provide a healthy, natural environment, reducing congestion”. It is the kind of propaganda you would expect in a totalitarian state.