Holidaying in Portugal really brought home how the Olympics has transformed the image of the UK. Brand Britain seemed to be everywhere, from young Portuguese hipsters wearing London themed designer T shirts to premier league football tops on the less fashion conscious. Whilst we in the UK remain understandably fixated on our economic travails and dreadful weather it seems that our relative strength and Olympics success means we are looked on with envy elsewhere.
Get off the tourist track and Portugal is struggling. You can sense it. Beggars on busy streets, half finished building sites on every corner, rough sleepers and masses of vacant shops in even the most affluent areas. If graffiti or queuing had been in the Olympics Portugal would have won stacks of medals.
A trip to Lisbon revealed both similarities and differences with the UK. Firstly both countries clearly moved into the economic super league around the same time and both due to imperialism. Invading and taking over large parts of the world handily provided untold riches via captive new markets and boundless raw materials and new products for the home market. The grandeur of Central Lisbon is on a par with London and they must have felt similar in the early 1900s.
But with the end of empire things are now very different. Whilst our constant focus on innovation has driven UK economic growth Portugal looks to have been treading economic water for over half a century. The Lisbon area now feels more like parts of the north rather than London. Starved of private capital it has clearly relied upon Government and EU funded regeneration investment, in particular through the 80s and 90s.
Comparing how this public money appears to have been spent is interesting. There didn’t seem too much evidence of huge new public realm projects or new galleries and museums but the road infrastructure was modern, extensive and free flowing. Our 45 minute train journey to Lisbon was well used, cost £4 return and ran on long clean trains every 20 minutes. Most stations linked either to a bus interchange or Metro station. The Lisbon Expo98 site is a wonderful new mixed use urban quarter linked to the City Centre by a new rail link and interchange.
But compared to central Newcastle Lisbon felt a bit tatty and unloved. It seems clear that the limited public sector resources have been targeted on infrastructure. I personally liked the shabby chic and fading elegance of central Lisbon and, in particular, loved the fact that the public and private transport system really worked. As someone who regularly uses the Western bypass and often has to make business trips to Manchester by train the contrast was stark.
The massive cultural and environmental improvement of our City Centres is something to be rightly proud of but have we hit the right balance between the easier and quicker arts and landscape projects compared to the more difficult long term infrastructure investment? There is currently a huge policy emphasis on infrastructure spending and from a business perspective this is much welcomed. The massive transport benefits created immediately by the new Tyne Tunnel only strengthen this view. Time spent in the office generating jobs and investment rather than sitting on the Central Motorway is good for the economy. Time really is money and more money equals more taxes and job creation
But back to the economic stuff. My trip to Portugal brought home, looking at the long term, how economically strong the UK is. After all can you name a Portuguese invention? Looking at the North East alone the railway, electric lamp, steam turbine and safety match immediately spring to mind.
Plenty of reasons to be cheerful in tough times.