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Infrastructure at the speed of fright - all vision but no action

Another train crash, another witch hunt, another tall building kicked into touch. England is not a good country for visionary projects. Not that you won't get any publicity - you will get lots. You just won't get anything done. That is why we stay in the realm of ideas and don't try to connect them up to reality. That is why we have so many visionary architects - safest way to practice, no professional indemnity - and such a flood of entries for every architectural competition - even if you win it won't get built.

But you know all about that side of the business.

More important these days is politics, the land of promises where everyone wants to get things done but somehow never does, and honours go to those who say something should be done, as opposed to those who put themselves in the decidedly dodgy position of having done it.

The week before he made his sobering visit to the Selby train crash site, John Prescott, who occupies the uneasy position of being deputy prime minister and secretary of state for transport - not really in charge but somehow totally responsible - received a memorandum from the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority stating that unless a network of large-diameter railway tunnels was bored under central London immediately, the city's economic growth would suffer. As if this was not bad enough the memorandum went on to explain that off-peak rail travel in London was on course to double by 2020 and peak travel to increase by 15 per cent - the peak increase limited only by lack of standing room. Thus a nightmare world of permanently crowded tube and suburban trains awaits those presently at nursery school or as yet unborn - or will await them if accident or technical failure does not bring the entire network to a halt sooner.

Whether Prescott has a portrait of Sir Winston Churchill on the wall above his desk or not we do not know. What we must surmise is that he took the explosive contents of this memorandum calmly, checked his wallet to make sure the £180 billion earmarked for transport improvements was still there, and then turned his attention to more important things. Such as, for example, the impudent Heron property company bid to build a 43-storey office building in the heart of London's alleged financial district. And the squabble about who is really in charge of the so-called 'spatial design strategy' for the city, with its extraordinary capacity to trigger non-stop debate in the Greater London Assembly on the subject of how many architects can dance on the roof of a groundscraper?

Politics, one speculates, must consist of many such leaps from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Could any minister get anything done about the proposed London tunnels that would make any real difference to London's transport crisis in any useful period of time? The estimated £11 billion cost would undoubtedly double, and their completion date would become as elastic as that of the Jubilee Line Extension.

The Strategic Rail Authority's date for the completion of the first new tunnel - the old Crossrail scheme in disguise, with its design work already done - is 2011, a date that contrives to seem both barely possible and hopelessly late. The other completion dates mercifully peter out after 2017, along with their credibility.

It is hard to believe that any intelligent government, in an age where information moves at the speed of light, would even contemplate embarking on a massive programme of nineteenth century infrastructure like this. Even harder to believe that decision makers, apparently devoid of any sense of urgency, would dally with the regulation of tall buildings and the direction of spatial design strategies.

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