David Davis MP had a powerful article in The Times last week (18.05.11) on the need for more investment in broadband infrastructure. He drew an analogy with the 19th century construction of the London sewerage system. Its designer,  Joseph Bazalgette, surveyed a city of scattered villages, and concluded that his system would have to be large enough to cope when the gaps had been infilled to form a continuous urban area.  Having arrived at a figure for the capacity that would require, he then doubled it!  Hardly scientific, but brilliant foresight.

I found myself wondering if we could ever be as bold as that in the cash-strapped early 21st century. I have seen some PFI (private finance initiative) schemes where space has well exceeded present needs – for example community health centres with several rooms unoccupied a year after opening – but I confess that I have often put that down to lax decision making, influenced by a perception of ‘easy money’,  rather than visionary future-proofing.  I recognise the part played by the PFI in improving the UK’s public estate, but I think it has sometimes encouraged a lack of rigour in the evaluation of needs – with financial consequences for future generations. And yet, as the Bazalgette example proves,  bold expansive vision can sometimes be proved right by subsequent events.

When it comes to digital infrastructure, David Davis suggests that bold expansive vision is lacking in the UK – indeed, that we are ‘trailing the world’.  Only 0.2% of UK households have a superfast broadband connection, compared with 34% in Japan.  There is a danger, he says, that superfast broadband will be an urban luxury in Britain, with damaging consequences for the economy.  And he makes the point that remedying that deficiency does not require advanced technology; it’s more a matter of digging trenches and laying pipes – a bit like Bazalgette’s sewerage project, and similarly labour-intensive. Where would the money come from?  Perhaps this is a case for a visionary PFI.

The title of this post comes from Daniel Burnham, who produced the master plan for the modern city of Chicago, early in the 20th century.  I jotted down the words when I went there some years ago, and they have stayed in my mind:  ’Make no little plans’, he said, ‘they have no power to stir men’s blood’.

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