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Italy and the UK decision to expand Heathrow

The Italian public has decisively turned against major infrastructure projects. Will the UK follow in Italy’s footsteps after the decision to expand Heathrow airport?

As Graham Ruddick put it in the Guardian on 26 October,One by one, Theresa May’s government is giving the go-ahead to major infrastructure projects that will cost taxpayers billions of pounds.’ By doing so, she signalled her determination to promote growth and the creation of new jobs, as well as to offset the oft predicted economic downturn following Brexit. According to The Independent, the business case for the expansion of Heathrow airport was ‘overwhelming.’ Admittedly, there were strong objections on environmental grounds, yet ‘if the green argument is judged to be paramount, then we would not build new capacity at all, and that would have very serious consequences for economic growth.’

Until recently in the UK, the case for economic growth appeared to be fairly uncontroversial. This was in stark contrast to Italy where economic modernization has for some time been contested and opposed, effectively thwarting successive Prime Ministers’ attempts to relaunch major public works. Disaffection with the myth of material progress and well-being has spread through society, hence the critique of economic growth and modernization is not restricted to intellectuals or ‘loony greens.’ In 1986 the country saw the birth of the Slow Food Movement, whose Manifesto proclaimed that ‘In the name of productivity, the “fast life” has changed our lifestyle and now threatens our environment and our land (and city) scapes.’ Its founder, Carlo Petrini, later developed it into a global organization. This was followed by the Movement for Happy Degrowth, founded at the beginning of the 2000s and inspired by the philosophy of Serge Latouche, a radical opponent of the idea that economic growth equals progress.

Similar ideas have been at the roots of sustained opposition to grandiose public works projects like the construction of a high-speed railway line in the Susa Valley near Turin, or the much publicized bridge linking Sicily to the mainland. In the Susa valley, the NO TAV movement against high-speed trains developed in the 1990s and has since been able to gather widespread popular support among local residents and public administrators. As their website states: ‘The locals’ concerns and proposals are being completely ignored in the name of the only Modern God: money.’

While the mainstream political parties, primarily Forza Italia under Silvio Berlusconi, and the Democratic Party under Matteo Renzi, endeavoured to popularize bold narratives of innovation and growth, the 5-Star Movement led by ex-comedian Beppe Grillo embraced the protest movements, rapidly becoming the second largest party in Italy. In June 2016, two candidates of the Movement were elected mayors of Rome and Turin, Virginia Raggi in the capital city and Chiara Appendino in Turin. Both have since clearly demonstrated their determined opposition to major public works and events. The former scuppered Italy’s bid to hold the 2024 Olympic Games in Rome and the latter reiterated her disapproval of the high-speed railway project, appointing prominent leaders of the NO TAV movement to positions of responsibility in her local government.

Will the opposition to the expansion of Heathrow airport spearhead comparable popular movements such as the ones in Italy in the UK? Has the vote in favour of Brexit already signalled that a majority of people no longer prioritise economic growth if it is perceived to threaten their lifestyle? While Theresa May’s clear-cut commitment to major new public works post-Brexit indicates that for her material expansion and progress remain overriding concerns and are non-negotiable, she may soon discover, as Italian prime ministers already have, that the public appetite’s for growth has greatly diminished, if it is deemed to come at the expense of their quality of life.

Featured image credit: London Heathrow airport by graceful. Public domain via Pixabay.

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