Fly-unders are the future

Bring on the 'fly-unders'. It’s the flawed plans that make us Nimbys

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If you leave or arrive in London via the M4, you may have glimpsed something remarkable: a huge banner supporting – yes, supporting – a local planning initiative. The project, under consideration by Hammersmith and Fulham, is for a "fly-under" – a tunnel, in other words – that would replace the decrepit Hammersmith fly-over, which is now undergoing disruptive structural repairs for the umpteenth time.

The idea of replacing ageing fly-overs, which not only look ugly, but spread air pollution and divide areas that were once united, was mooted a year or so ago by the London mayor, Boris Johnson. His broad-sweep propensity to be seduced by Continental-style grands projets had to be in there somewhere, didn’t it?

But at least someone is prepared to contemplate big ideas even if, as so often, they are dismissed as impractical, not the sort of thing we Brits could ever get done, or simply laughed out of court.

And what struck me about the “fly-under” idea, almost as soon as I heard about it, was how brilliantly simple and almost obvious it was. There are plenty of major cities on the other side of the Channel that took the subterranean route for roads long ago. If you are daft enough to have driven into Brussels, say, or Lyon, or Montpellier, you will be well acquainted with the disorientating effect that interlocking underpasses have on drivers unfamiliar with what lies above. I have passed through Lyon almost without realising it (and, it has to be said, at other times found myself interminably stuck in its fume-filled tunnel). I often wondered why, passing through Rouen, I could never see the cathedral (until the day the underpass was closed for repair).

The benefits are not primarily for the motorist; they are to be seen, and felt, above, in cities and parts of cities that preserve their character and are not split apart by traffic that is trying to get somewhere else. Hammersmith is just one of dozens of fractured areas all over the country that could be hugely improved by being put back together again.

Not all the locals are enthusiastic about a fly-under. There are the inevitable complaints about disturbance during construction – though the council estimates that the whole project could take as little as three years. There are sceptics who doubt that a fly-under would make much difference, and there is the question of financing – except that Hammersmith calculates that by selling off some of the new land above, it could recoup the cost.

The overwhelming response, however, has been positive – which, for a major planning initiative in the UK, is little short of a miracle. And this should be instructive. Planners seem to shy away from big undertakings for fear of opposition, unless they are commercial enterprises lobbied for by developers. This suggests that when a project is judged to be both imaginative and beneficial, it can attract support.

The difficulty with, for instance, HS2 is that too few have yet been convinced that the upside will outweigh the downside, and it is not just those whose villages may be blighted who feel that way. Contrast London’s Crossrail. This is causing enormous grief in the immediate areas affected by construction. But the clamour is now for a north-south link to match the east-west one approaching completion.

This should be a lesson to planners everywhere. Nimbyism is not a knee-jerk inevitability. It is born of the experience that new development is far more likely to benefit the developer (in profit) and the council (in increased revenue) than anyone who actually lives there. If the Hammersmith fly-under goes ahead, my regular trips to visit relatives in the south-west may take a bit longer (and, yes, I do take the train). But the delays will be mitigated by the knowledge that the aggravation will be worth it. Not chiefly for the council’s bottom line, but because the aesthetics and quality of life above ground will improve. If more efforts were made in this direction, there might be fewer expensive planning struggles that leave existing residents branded as Nimbys.

Another riddle wrapped inside another enigma

My slight acquaintance with the area of Lake Annecy, where members of the al-Hilli family were murdered two years ago, adds an extra frisson to what has become an all-consuming mystery, as well as a tragic human story. The more that is revealed, the more layers are exposed beneath. What turn of fate was it that brought together the Iraqi-born family in their BMW, a local cyclist, an antique firearm, perhaps another car, and a sighting of a motorcyclist with a distinctive helmet that opened from the sides? The BMW driver, Saad al-Hilli, it turns out, not only emigrated from Iraq, but worked in the satellite industry and had been in dispute with his brother over an inheritance. The cyclist, it turns out, was engaged to an heiress and there may or may not have been some tensions over property being transferred to her by his prospective parents-in-law. And the man who may or may not have ridden the motorcycle had lost his job as a local policeman. The proximity of Switzerland may also be relevant. If this case is eventually resolved, there is surely ample material for a film on the model of Paul Haggis’s film Crash – a collision that brings together disparate lives.

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