Our consultation culture has made us so obsessed with finding a consensus that we’re scared to build the visionary ‘grand projects’ that defined the West a generation ago

I was in the states when Katrina struck and was able to witness Americans’ reaction to their resources – physical and logistical – being overwhelmed.

Since then President Bush has re-pledged to rebuild New Orleans, whatever the cost. There is clearly a question to be asked about whether New Orleans should be rebuilt at all in the face of melting Arctic ice, but I prefer a different question. Are Western nations any good any more at the grand project? Four years on, the Twin Towers are yet to rise again. The Greeks delivered the Olympics in the nick of time but there appears to be little legacy or lasting quality. And Britain’s track record over a long period of time hardly confers bragging rights.

As we watch the Far East reach for the skies with a verve and momentum that is breathtaking, we are forced to reflect – didn’t we once do that? From Victorian infrastructure through to London Docklands, from Georgian Urban Design through to the New Towns, we used to plan big, we used to build big. Sometimes the private sector led the way, backed by parliamentary private bills, later the public sector, through assertive land assembly and clear planning control. But when something needed to be done, we did it – we combined the infrastructure, the spaces, the jobs, the homes and the amenities and we built it. Sometimes we got it wrong – as a number of the New Towns pay lasting testimony. Often we got it right, as the legacy of the garden cities, the canals and the railways demonstrate.

As we all grapple with the complexity of delivering projects at the start of the 21st century, are we trapped in a maze of our making? In among the respect for private property rights, the desire for a community-led approach, the mantra of consultation and the glare of media scrutiny of every move, have we made the very act of delivery too darned difficult?

For a long time I have wondered if this is a generational thing – that as Ronan Point collapsed along with the modernist myth, so we adopted a conservatism that precludes the adoption of the big risk in fear of the big failure. And that over time, this creed of careful instrumentalism has so ingrained itself in our decision-making culture that a generation that was not even born as the tower blocks were built has been infected nonetheless.

Or perhaps it’s just the inevitable state of a mature developed nation in the post-industrial age; that our levels of relative comfort mean that in turn we are also more comfortable with the status quo, that we would rather seek to reconcile conflicting interests rather than make the hard choice.

As we watch the Far East reach for the skies with a verve and momentum that is breathtaking, we are forced to reflect – didn’t we once do that?

Occasionally, joyously, someone here breaks out. Manchester, Gateshead and Bristol have all been subject to a level of continued transformation equal to any city in Europe. On a wider canvas, there is the sheer ambition of the Building Schools for the Future programme, the determination of English Partnerships’ National Coalfields programme or even the bloody-mindedness that saw through the London’s congestion charge. But in the overall scheme of things, these are still very much exceptions.

At the heart of most of these examples is a proper reconciliation of strong government and the fragmented representation of the public interest. Most successful grand projects require a top-down conviction of what should happen. The subsequent attempt to build consensus and public support is focused on the different question of “how”.

The critical role of government in any project is to define the simplest possible mechanism to deliver the “what” and “how” without further delay. It is an area where we often seem to fall down as the layering of initiatives and institutions around the country continue to remind us. Empowering and resourcing delivery agencies to deliver is the act of courage that turns convictions into thrilling reality.

The Olympics is now our clear test. Do we still have it in us to make big decisions quickly and then empower a single agency to deliver those decisions without encumbrance or delay?

Perhaps we need to evoke the spirit of 1948, that post-war period when we planned and then acted – on jobs, on homes, on infrastructure, on healthcare. Perhaps we need a second wind.