As we begin to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, governments everywhere are set to pour money into large building projects to revive their ailing economies. They would do well to learn from the world’s leaders in infrastructure.
It is not an original idea. More roads, railways, houses and airports have long been considered a good way to stimulate an economy, with so-called ‘shovel ready’ projects prioritised to get cash flowing, jobs supported, and, frankly, make people feel like something is being done.
So, it should be no surprise that in the aftermath of Covid-19, during which many of the engines of wealth creation slowed to a halt and national finances descended into the red, politicians the world over are thinking about steel, tarmac, wire, and bricks.
In the US, President Biden has put together a plan for $1.2 trillion of spending over five years on a wide range of projects including rail upgrades, roads and bridges, high-speed broadband, electric vehicle facilities, and more.
In the UK, Prime Minister Johnson is developing plans for capital investment in NHS buildings, schools and courts, as well as upgrades to roads and town centres. Away from public spending, the government is planning to unlock housebuilding with a new approach to planning law. If passed, the new legislation will designate certain areas ‘growth zones’ and make it much easier for developers to build within them.
Lofty ambitions indeed, but the trouble is we have a history of big building projects going wrong in this country. Crossrail, HS2, motorway upgrades – all consistently late and overbudget. Once our capital spending projects eventually get schools and hospitals built, they often then tied us all into expensive and often irrational Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts for decades. And then there are the targets for building new homes, which have been missed nearly every year since 1997.
Other countries do not have such problems. ‘Go big or go home’ could easily have been Singapore’s motto over the past half a century, as the country built its way from a swamp with no natural resources to a hub of global infrastructure. A skyline peppered with some of the tallest buildings in existence, high-speed rail, and new airports are among Singapore’s achievements. Influencers now flock to the city-state to share pictures of themselves in the Jewel at Changi Airport, living it up at Marina Bay Sands (a hotel, casino and shopping mall in one), and numerous architecturally impressive apartment buildings, theatres, and hotels.
Qatar is at an earlier step along the same path, with work on more roads, upgrades to airports like Doha International, and new hotels, offices, stadiums and homes at an advanced stage – and there’s much more to come. The tiny Gulf state accelerated its building programme after its successful bid to host the World Cup in 2022, and has plans that take its work on infrastructure well beyond 2030, including expansion of the Doha Metro. Just a few decades ago Qatar was a small, desert principality whose main industry was diving for pearls. It was dramatically transformed by the discovery of natural gas reserves, and now its leadership is working towards even greater change.
Naturally, there are significant differences between countries like the UK and US and those of Singapore and Qatar. In the West, building is more heavily regulated and therefore more expensive, permissions are harder to obtain, larger unwieldy bureaucracies add layer upon layer of barriers, and a more vocal, empowered public are able to block unpopular projects in their area. The governments of Singapore and Qatar are able to set out a vision for the future of their countries – and then work towards it without the constraints of local opposition.
In some ways, it is a trade-off between individual rights and freedoms versus infrastructure-led growth; if you want the first, then the second is going to be more difficult.
But, nevertheless, there are many lessons to be learned from the state-led successes of countries like Singapore and Qatar. The elimination of all but the most essential bureaucracy makes life easier for everyone; a lean and efficient state makes a huge difference. The clear payoff for citizens in jobs, better living conditions, and raised quality of life make them minded to tolerate, or even support, building projects – something policy makers in the UK dream of. And, perhaps most importantly, leaders who have a vision for their country and get ordinary people to buy into that vision are primed for success.
As President Biden and Prime Minister Johnson set about ‘building back better’, they need to recognise the problems of the past, learn from others, and sell their vision for the future to their citizens.