The Dutch take tough decisions on energy and transport
In contrast to the Netherlands, the UK seems paralysed by indecision about almost any major decision, says Paul Finch
I first went to Amsterdam 40 years ago, delivering copies of our magazine to the director of the newly completed Van Gogh Museum, designed by Gerrit Rietveld (subsequently enlarged with an extension by Kisho Kurokawa). We had been the first publication in Europe to feature the building, a brilliant piece of architecture then and now.
Returning to Amsterdam this week, after several subsequent visits since 1973, was an occasion not just for reminiscence, but for noting how the history of this great city may tell us about dilemmas we face in London.
This became apparent on a visit to Amsterdam Museum’s excellent exhibition on the city’s DNA, where both thematic and sequential elements in its history are nicely illustrated and explained in multimedia formats. It still comes as a bit of a shock to realise how much of the city and its buildings are below sea level, including the whole of Schiphol Airport.
Perhaps because of the need to resist water, an early example of the man-made city combatting nature, the Netherlands seems not to have feared thinking about radically different futures - both in terms of governance and physical characteristics. In the early 1930s, the city authorities identified areas on its outskirts which they determined should be developed to accommodate anticipated population growth up to the year 2000. The resulting plan was largely implemented after World War II. What far-sightedness. What commitment!
And, up to a point, what ruthlessness: no sentimentality here, nor in the way that the central station megastructure was located on the medieval harbour walls, thereby both announcing and confirming the end of the city as the great port it once was, with 30 per cent of the working population employed there.
In contrast, the UK seems paralysed with indecision about almost any major decision. The chaotic and incompetent energy polices of the last Labour government have left us struggling to develop a much-needed nuclear capacity to keep the lights on. Yet within my lifetime the UK was a world leader in these matters, courtesy of that now quaint-sounding organisation, the Atomic Energy Authority.
Why do we insist on resisting science and hoping something will turn up? The same syndrome of head-in-the-sand sentimental gush is only too evident in the self-selecting cadres trying to stop the UK benefiting from so-called ‘fracking’, in reality the same fracturing technology that has been with us for a least five decades.
You would think, from what they claim, that the earth’s crust was being destroyed; but what is actually happening 10,000ft down is that minute fissures are being created between rock - the width of a grain of sand. You won’t hear the antis telling you this. Now poor people will continue to pay over the odds for their energy because these holy fools have the politicians and the hapless BBC in thrall to them.
It is an inability to take tough decisions in a timely manner that led David Cameron to postpone a decision on London’s airport policy, shuffling off responsibility onto Howard Davies, the man who was in charge of the FSA during the period of its catastrophic failure to manage a corrupt banking community. Oh dear.
I think I know what the Dutch would do: they would announce that Heathrow is going to close because it is the wrong facility in the wrong place, rather like the old London Docks. Closure in the medium term is the first decision that needs to be taken - all else flows from it.
There is no indication that we will get anything other than a fudge. Future generations will have to take decisions we don’t have the guts to contemplate.