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Martin Pawley: will no one pay for infrastructure?

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riba council

Has it ever occurred to you that we live in a postinfrastructural age? That our failure to pay for a high-speed Channel link is not a national humiliation but part of a global trend? In the Palm Court of the Landmark Hotel, where prosperous Lebanese gentlemen and their advisers enjoy heated conversations, they talk of nothing else. The reconstruction of Beirut, it seems, is being delayed by the failure of private investors to put up money for roads, transport, water, electricity, telephones or any form of public utility - anything, in fact, except private-sector hotels, casinos and apartment houses.

Even though some of the wealthiest men in the world live in the Lebanon, with every interest in its return to prosperity, they will not foot the bill for any part of its public realm.

Instead they want to build the selfsame hotels, casinos and apartment houses with their own water supply and their own electrical generators.

Conventionally of course this would be regarded as a great leap backward, but is it? There is a broad trend towards autarchy that is not solely a Middle Eastern matter. What is our architectural obsession with natural ventilation if it is not a step toward turning every English building into a Lebanese hotel? What is the almost universal commercial demand for an uninterruptable power supply for computers, if it is not another step in the same direction? And what, indeed, is the meaning of our preference for private transport as opposed to public transport, or our eagerness to pay in advance the entire development costs of the IT industry that may one day make all physical movement unnecessary? (It might be hard to believe that there is a connection between the scandal of the Lord Chancellor's sumptuous private art gallery in the Palace of Westminster and the reconstruction of Beirut, but there is a connection.

The second is merely the first writ large. ) Ten years ago everything looked different. Brussels had proposed a grand programme of public works to restore full employment to the EC. The project involved the construction of thousands of kilometres of new autoroute with enormous bridges like the Tagus, the Oresund link, the Messina and the Gibraltar put out to tender. High-speed trains were to link all of Europe's capitals; old subway systems were to be revitalised and extended; glittering new ra i lway stat ions were to be bu i lt beneath c it ies a long w ith airport terminals, container ports and vast underground networks of tunnels and car parks - so that consumers could emerge at the very heart of unspoiled heritage quarters.

What is left of this grand plan? One or two of the most grandiloquent infrastructure schemes have scraped through to completion, but the vast majority have been put on indefinite hold or scrapped. The great Euro high-speed train network and the great Euro autoroute network are incomplete.

Tunnel access to downtown Helsinki is forgotten, London's CrossRail and the high-speed Channel Tunnel link are as far back on the back burner as it is poss ib le to go. And why has the Jubilee Line Extension survived? Because it had the luck to pass through the Greenwich Meridian.

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