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Foster: ‘UK could learn from China about civic pride’

Norman Foster speaking at the LSE's Urban Age Global Debate. Image by Catarina Heeckt
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China has picked up on a ‘tremendous sense of civic pride’ which the UK appears to have lost, Norman Foster has warned

The head of the UK’s largest practice raised his concerns during a speech at the London School of Economics calling on Western policy makers to ‘plan for future generations’ and deliver infrastructure for social good.

Praising China’s adoption of Western infrastructure models, Foster described the ‘tremendous sense of civic pride’ that saw his terminal at Beijing International Airport designed and completed in just four years.

He said: ‘With Beijing it’s not just about the quest on their part to define a building as a machine which can cope with the number of aircraft arriving and departing; there’s a tremendous sense of civic pride.’

Recalling his first job as a junior clerk inside Alfred Waterhouse’s iconic Manchester Town Hall, he added: ‘I started my working life at the age of 16 in Manchester Town Hall, and I tell you that made a deep impression on me.

‘They [the Chinese] have picked up on that [sense of civic pride] and I fear sometimes we are in danger of losing that … if we haven’t [already] lost it.’

Foster’s speech was the centrepiece of a debate celebrating 10 years of the LSE’s Urban Age programme, which focused on the pressing need to boost infrastructure investment in both developing and developed nations.

High-profile audience members inside the packed auditorium included AZPML founder Alejandro Zaera-Polo and former Labour ministers Peter Mandelson and Tessa Jowell.

Criticising the slow pace of decision-making in the UK, Foster compared his 1.4 million m² Beijing terminal with Heathrow Terminal 5 which was only 400,000m² but took 20 years to complete.

He also hit back at criticism that his ambitious Thames Estuary airport proposal would be ‘too difficult’ to build, explaining it would take the same time to get just ‘one runway extra’ at Heathrow.

Following the speech, the Pritzker laureate sat with Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic on a panel, which had been due to feature National Infrastructure Commission chair Andrew Adonis, who was unable to attend.

LSE urban studies professor and panel chair Ricky Burdett suggested rapid urbanisation and population growth meant there had never been a moment in history ‘where we need more valuable fundamental infrastructure’ than now.

Addressing the growing infrastructure deficit in developed nations, Burdett asked: ‘Why is it that money is not being channelled into this meaningful and necessary infrastructure? Is that a political problem or risk averse problem?’

In response Foster suggested ‘attitude of mind’ not money was holding investors back.

He said: ‘It’s never money; it’s about attitude of mind. There are some countries where you pay the price for something, they will do it once, they will do it well and that is it.

‘There are some countries where you will never get it right and, in between, there are some countries where you will do it two or three times before you get it right.’

He continued: ‘Which is the cheapest most economical high-value route? It’s doing something right and doing it well – that is value for money. There may be a higher or lower first cost but in my experience it’s never about money and always about attitude.

Wren was working on a shoestring and look at what he did

‘Some of the best buildings I know are essentially low budget. Wren was working on a shoestring and look at what he did.’

Asked by the AJ whether he supported Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal for ‘People’s Quantitative Easing’ (QE) to fund infrastructure projects, Foster said his ‘intuition’ was against it.

He said: ‘There is a link between inflation and printing money and living outside one’s means, whether that’s a nation or a household or any individual.

‘I don’t think there is a connection between the need for affordable housing and QE, which is a euphemism for printing money.’

Describing one solution to the housing crisis, he said: ‘With such a land stock within the ownership of local authorities there should be a mechanism whereby a certain proportion of the land could be sold at a rate which had conditions attached to it in terms of the way it is priced for the market.

‘So you could use the regulatory powers of those who own the land to sell it with strings attached so you addres the [housing] issue at every level of society.’

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