Common sense about the imbalances in the UK economy

During my colonoscopy, I learnt my consultant was an offspring of two architects. As he directed the colonoscope into places mostly approached from the other side (unless you're a nematode worm) he asked what I thought of the new hospital where my procedure was taking place. Well..oh hang on, gas pleaasse...mmmm...who?

Actually, I’d like to know the doctor’s views on the drawing below:  it’s Stansted airport's new shopping mall whose striking wiggliness resembles an intestine.

Thirty years ago, Foster’s design for Stansted was a vindication of architectural values. By the 1990s, clutter in public spaces, including airports, was a problem. Foster reputedly kept it at bay with a masterful design. Architectural Review in 1991 said so:

…every airport has to house a mass of low level accommodation, ranging from check-in desks to customs and passport control booths, with shops, restaurants, bars and all manner of small service spaces between. From the first, these were bound to conflict with and clutter the simplicity of the main idea. The architects’ response has been to impose a very strong order on the lower structures which is completely independent of the larger order of the building itself.”

Clearly, the retail intestine wasn’t a feature of the original design.That stretched-out, peristaltic shape, lined with branded storefronts, blocks all the sight lines Foster intended to relate the traveller on the concourse to the constituting facts of air travel e.g the sky, horizon, ground, technology (while drawing a veil over the airport’s support functions stowed away underfoot).

The spectacle of the intestine inserted like a new organ into Foster’s elegant robot is too lurid not to mean something. We want to push it harder so if you’re experiencing discomfort, have some more gas as we travel further up our own fundament in search of a far-fetched idea.

 



Foster’s architectural rhetoric relies on ideas that politicians would like to be true of the UK. It offers a narrative about technologically-knowing, transparent, benignly communicative and protective space that could easily describe an ideal advanced modern nation-state. If Foster’s design is a workable symbol of modern social democracy, what does the mall speak of as something awkwardly related to it? The UK economy.

The mall’s shape points to the digestive metaphor. Some of the more economically minded may know already that many economists have remarked on the UK’s economy transition from industrial output and exports to services, imports,and consumer spending. In a similar way out post-way diet of greens, meat stews and rationing have been replaced by sugary drinks, Big Mac and Fries and Supersize Me©️. Sure we’re happier but yes, we’re fatter and unfitter.

Some of our thriving economic sectors are in our Stansted colon: transport is well-represented by the waiting aircraft, and by the road and rail network that to get passengers there; alcohol is well represented so is food with eight outles, some perhaps using our tiny farming and fish industries; and the retail sector with some 25 outlets. The pharma sector is there too (sort of: Boots is perhaps better representing private equity - see below). The wonderfully-named Moneycorp foreign exchange bureau will have to represent the UK’s vast and complex financial services industry.

Taking over companies and loading them up with debt to extract financial rewards for its backers is an odd business model

To the extent that the mall models the British economy, it tells us four things. The first is that Britain is tied to Briton’s lust to spend. What we spends as households amounts to an immense 66% of annual economic growth in terms of expenditure. No economic stat can be published without a comparison with our European friends: the French and Germans are more restrained on 55% and the Scandis on all less than 50%. Here are the World Bank figures if you have time while your plane is delayed.

This segways into the second truth, that over-reliance to consumer spending leaves the economy vulnerable. People have carried on filling their shopping bags and doing up their kitchens because interest rates have been super low allowing them to take on more debt. As rates rise, many households will find themselves exposed, cut spending so hitting the high street. Even now, the pain is being felt: Jamie’s Italian, Strada, and Byron are chains shuttering branches to stay afloat. And in our Stansted microcosm, East, the fashion brand, has just gone bust.

Thirdly, we do depend on foreigners to keep our economy afloat: airports symbolise our openness to the world beyond. The country needs foreign investment to offset our whacking current account deficit - the kindness of strangers as the Bank of England’s Mark Carney calls it. Not that they are doing us a favour: instead they are taking advantage of the incredibly lax regulatory regime. In some cases, such as the oil-rich monarchy of Qatar, they get to put their name badges on other architectural masterpieces such as The Shard, the Savoy and the Olympic Village. A reverse organ transplant, perhaps.

Finally there is the role of finance but the domination of the London skyline by major banks that Disclaimer usually worries about. In our Stansted digestive model, private equity is the lurking germ. No fewer than six of the shops are private equity owned, As well as the dearly departed East there is Boosts, Oasis, Face Face, Leon and Pret. WH Smiths has the oomph to reject the temptation a few years ago. Taking over companies and loading them up with debt to extract financial rewards for its backers is an odd business model and it can go wrong. Don't just listen to me: read this excellent obituary of Maplin.

The colonoscopy is over and I await the result. But the interim verdict is worrying: the body is generally being kept going with foreign vitamins and stimulants. Perhaps, the economy needs surgery: perhaps the brain needs to pay more attention to the gut. Brexit will certainly not help with the treatment. But the prescription now forced on the patient will be a radical exercise and a diet regime of more industrial goodness and less consumer debt. That rebalancing might well mean the economy and the social democratic framing of it are much better aligned. Foster’s airport may come to symbolise the economy as much as the institutional/political order we hope is ours.

 

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