The lessons of Dubai? Let s build some more British isles

Article by John Blundell in The Business

THE conventional view is the oceans are rising and marginal land will be swamped and lost for ever. We are warned the Maldives and other low lying land will eventually disappear under the waves. But the reality is that man is slowly creating more land and even spectacular new islands to great pleasure and profit. So is it time to make Britain bigger too? We can build artificial islands. We can reclaim tidal land. Every coastal city could be expanded in a way that could transform them.

If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard a property man say of land, “they are not making it any more”, I would be rich. Perhaps all clichés invite contradiction. I think it time we confounded this stale estate agent’s banality. By this I mean start constructing new islands. Artificial land construction is a benevolent option that our planners barely consider.

There are plenty of examples of sizeable infills but they are so long established we almost forget them. There are thousands or acres reclaimed from the North Sea between Spalding and Kings Lynn. Some of the prettiest towns are ports that have atrophied as the coast was extended. The Dutch helped enhance the size of Lincolnshire in the 18th century. They could help us again. Previous reclamations have been for agricultural use but I envisage far higher future value in buildings – new homes and new workplaces. Could the entire Wash not be barraged and poldered as they have reclaimed the Netherlands?

I am thinking of adventurous extensions. Some of the most precious acres in London were captured from the Thames when Bazalgette erected the London sewers in the 1860s. The Embankment, in this sense, was a side effect of the cholera scares. The Strand, we forget, is where the Thames used to reach. Strand is Saxon for shore. The lower reaches of the Thames, its estuary on the Essex and Kent shorelines, are rich in opportunities. What would have been an impossible challenge in the past would not daunt hydraulic engineers. The trick is to look beyond our own rather tame shores. The “Eighth Wonder of the World” is the three Palm Islands off the coast of the Emirate of Dubai. Palm Jumeira, Jebel Ali and Deira will create 74 new miles of beach when they are finished.

Israel is considering erecting four large artificial islands off Tel Aviv, Haifa, Herzliya and Netanya jutting into the Eastern Mediterranean. This is not an original idea. Caesarea was itself a great civil engineering venture by King Herod. The Japanese have been infilling coastal land for generations but an entirely new island is a leap of the imagination. Osaka has a new airport isle, resolving a problem not otherwise easily answered. Tokyo has constructed two vast islands in Tokyo Bay. More are planned.

Brave sportsmen play cricket on the Dogger Bank in the North Sea in summer at low tide. With little more than the waste from Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Hull and some concrete blocks an entire new town could emerge. Perhaps we could consult the Prince of Wales to create a Poundbury out in the sea. Port Grimaud in France is a dynamic community built on newly created real estate.

Hong Kong’s new international airport has been constructed by quarrying out an existing island and extending it. It is a triumph. It has reconfigured the entire shape of the city-state. We could do the same for diverse British cities.

Civil engineers can achieve far more than we usually let them perform. We can juggle the priorities for the extra acreage. I might stipulate no new council estates with their mysterious blights. Indeed much of the rubble needed could be derived from bulldozing Britain’s grottier municipal schemes and creating parks. What I think would be fascinating would be if the conventions of the Town and Country Planning Act were relaxed for any such new acreages. I regard constricting property evolution to the “structure plans” of the municipal imagination is a huge error that cramps or crushes experimentation.

There is nothing truly new in business. The world famous Edinburgh New Town was built on land reclaimed from impossible bogland. It needed the blessing and permission of the burgh authorities but the harmony and grace of the New Town was a tissue of private contracts – not of “planning” as we know it. Dundee is investing huge sums reworking its frontage on the Tay, including creating new hectares from infill, but the Tay could be enhanced by a little archipelago of islands strung out from Invergowrie to Broughty Ferry.

Any estuary seems to invite consideration for a series of projects that could transform the economic balance of every seaside city or town. Instead of creeping ever more into the countryside of their neighbourhoods we could create thousands of new square kilometres. Too expensive? I can’t begin to price it but the raw materials are the cheapest. Britain is not short of stone and much of the infill could be our vast tonnages of urban waste which we already tip or dump at sea.

Cardiff has lifted its commericial vitality by extensive reworking of its bay. It encountered hostility from ecologists who feared the loss or habitat for birds and fishes but it seems these fears have evaporated. Good landbuilding projects would make ample provision for wildlife. Re-configured land could positively enhance wildife opportunities. The millions of tonnes of spill from the Channel Tunnel has been used to create lovely new meadows on the Kent coast.

Have I portrayed the potential for elegance I envisage ? Two of my favourite cities are really artificial islands. The stunningly handsome Venice is erected on marshes so inhospitable none of the medieval princes wanted it. It grew up on free trade. From a mere fishing hamlet on stilts, Venice grew to become the greatest trading city in the Mediterranean. Could there be a new Venice off Britain? The elegance of Amsterdam was built on no more than bogland on the Amstel until people started to drain and pile. Again it was so marginal no extant authorities wanted it. Amsterdam fired the great Dutch boom of the 17th century, based on reclaimed land and the magic of free trade.

St Petersburg too was erected on tidal bogs on a site that seemed to defie utility. Yet the Russian land reclamation was an example of state planning and control. I expressly envisage ventures delivered by the market not by quangoes. I want new land creation to be a private enterprise project.

So, could we make these prospective islands thrive by offering clear tax concessions? If it is too idealistic to suggest zero taxes, would it be possible to at least offer lower taxes? Could they be created as enterprise zones where experiments could be conducted in flat taxes? The Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey prosper as curious opt-out islands from the oppressive nature of UK mainland taxes. Could the new British islands be exempt from duty for, say, 50 years? Even better they could be outside the EU too. They would naturally flourish unencumbered by the drizzle of directives from the European Commission.

By constructing such islands I am proposing something rather more than bold civil engineering. The stones and infill are the tangible base for what could be a great adventure for enterprise and architecture. The pressing congestion of the England south east is seen as a permanent threat to “The Green Belt” yet there would be far more ground to play with if we applied Dutch enterprise to the entire Thames estuary. This does not need money so much as imagination.

John Blundell is Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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