Volcanic eruptions and the election

The news that Lord Adonis and his colleagues are getting to grips with the effects of the Icelandic volcano is to be welcomed.

Less good is the entirely predictable announcement by the Conservatives of their “8-point plan to address the flight crisis”. Have they learnt nothing from the reaction to the TV debate last week?

If you want to look at the election issues resulting from this unprecedented event, you have to have a deeper analysis than cooking up an 8-point plan on a Sunday Morning. People expect a grown up approach not a silly press release designed to get a page lead in Monday’s Sun newspaper.

So what are the issues?

The volcano could have an impact, hopefully intermittent, for the next 2 years.

Aircraft have proved unable to deal with the immediate impact, how will the rest of the transport infrastructure cope over the next few years?

As Nick Clegg would say, I don’t have all the answers but how the political parties stand on infrastructure investment, public services, regulation and European Union are going to be key determinants of success.

We have a transport system built on the just-in-time, capital maximisation model that doesn’t seem to be able to cope with natural events. And all three political parties are looking to reduce public sector investment, the Tories dramatically so.

I would argue that the Tories lean public sector infrastructure philosophy, part of their post bureaucratic age narrative, is more prone to break down, when something unusual happens.

Pressure will be felt greater on companies with distribution, logistics, advisory services, product sourcing and production spread across continents in order to chase price gains. These companies are going to need a government that maintains, enhances and re-enforces transport networks.

The sort of company that would benefit from this approach is Marks and Spencer. They increasingly source their materials abroad and they require a reliable distribution network. As we have seen, their Chairman is rather vociferous when the government takes decisions to maintain a basic level of public sector investment. Governments sometimes have to take decisions that upset the narrow, short term interests of business leaders in order to protect the wider, long term interests of business leaders. That’s life.

Right now, there could be up to 1 million people in the wrong place 72 hours after the event. In some parts of Europe, public transport and public services looked close to breaking point. If this is going to be a regular event in future years, who do you want to deal with it?

There are always lessons to be learned. But history has already taught us a few. Strip back public services to the core and our quality of life suffers.

One final, completely partisan point. Thank heavens Lord Adonis is in charge and not the hapless Theresa Villiers.

6 comments ↓

#1 Chris Watts on 04.18.10 at 9:28 pm

What could make matters worse is there’s talk that the second much bigger volcano Mount Katla could erupt. Apartently when Eyjafjallajökull has erupted like it’s just done, it’s often been followed by a eruption of Mount Katla which could make this seem like a storm in a tea cup.

#2 John Heaven on 04.18.10 at 11:22 pm

I don’t think any party can or would claim to deliver a transport system (especially an international one) that is capable of dealing with these “black swans” very well.

Take the chaos that the snow in the UK caused recently. It was an extreme, the likes of which hadn’t been seen for decades. We could have been prepared, but I think most people agreed that the overall cost of the odd chaotic winter is much less than the cost of being totally prepared for something that hardly ever occurs.

This volcanic disruption (pardon the pun) was a “black swan”, and it would have been a waste of money to make plans for this and thousands of other equally unforeseeable eventualities — a more extreme version of the UK snow situation.

It will be a different matter if it becomes business as usual (at least for the next couple of years). The comparison there would be countries like Sweden, who really can justify investing in snow-ploughs because heavy winters are a regular and foreseeable occurance there.

So I don’t agree that advocates of lean public services/transport system would favour short-term considerations and ignore the risk of more disruption in the next couple of years. Presumably they’d just advocate an efficient way of dealing with it.

#3 Andy Mabbett on 04.18.10 at 11:44 pm

I particularly enjoyed their “Dunkirk style rescue effort” comment. It’s the spirit of the blitz, dontcha know!

#4 Scott Wilson on 04.19.10 at 9:01 am

There is a systemic issue with modern networked infrastructure, which is the tradeoff of efficiency and fragility; the more efficient the network is, the more fragile it becomes to disruption and collapse.

This means that in order to have a viable system you have to build in and defend a basic amount of “inefficiency” (i.e. latent capacity, or deliberate delays between connections) rather than constantly drive for efficiency savings.

This applies equally to transport, energy, and economic supply networks.

#5 TimHood on 04.19.10 at 9:14 pm

This got me thinking-what have business leaders called for in the last few years? So I googled ‘business leaders call for’….

In short, they are quite in favour of government expenditure in a number of cases: infrastructure investment, research expenditure, subsidy of training costs, emergency support.

[Everything is cut and pasted from newspapers]

Despite improvement in UK broadband speeds, business leaders are still demanding more

London business leaders call for better and therefore bigger Heathrow.

150 Global Business Leaders call for legally binding United Nations framework to tackle Climate Change

Business leaders make a rallying call for apprenticeships

Business leaders join the Commission in growing call for urgent hike in research spending.

Business leaders have urged Chancellor Alistair Darling to introduce measures to help small firms through the recession in next week’s.

The Confederation of British Industry, which investigated how universities should be funded, is expected to recommend that fees rise

Business leaders have renewed their demand for a review of nurses’ and other public sector pensions, calling for a shift from “unsustainable” final salary schemes.

The pension age should be pushed up to 70, business leaders have demanded.

#6 John Heaven on 04.20.10 at 10:10 pm

@Scott Wilson: Flexibility — i.e. a bit of slack — causes inefficiency when it’s not required, but the opposite doesn’t automatically apply: inefficiency doesn’t guarantee flexibility.

Anyway, I think the point here was that a system flexible enough to react well to the situation at hand (and all the other equally unforeseeable events) would have to be supremely inefficient, and inefficient beyond anything that any party would advoate.

In concrete terms, it would have meant having a train, bus, ship or fleet of cars (or some combination of them) ready to replace each plane that didn’t fly!

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