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Why do US imports beat home grown expertise?

What have the Americans done to command the total confidence of the UK's public, politicians and media when it comes to the built environment? Did John Prescott start it when he hired Bechtel to 'save' the Jubilee Line Extension or does it go back further to the time the US giant came in to 'rescue' an ailing Channel Tunnel?

Bechtel, along with Fluor Daniel and Parsons Brinckerhoff, is now set not only to save Railtrack's reconstruction programme but will also guide and back the Channel Tunnel Rail Link to London.

Make no mistake, Bechtel, FD and PB are great firms and employ excellent engineers, many of whom, of course, are British. Their arrival is good for the UK industry both as a learning exercise and also as a spur for us to raise our game.

It is the public reaction that concerns me - no-one in our fervently nationalistic land bats an eyelid. While we are usually found complaining about and ridiculing the tacky, live-fortoday, image-conscious American culture, it seems that when it comes to infrastructure, the British public has developed complete faith in their technical and managerial skills.

The latest example is the arrival in the capital this weekend of Robert Kiley, as 'the saviour of London's Underground'.

The national media has had a field day since Ken Livingstone, London's mayor, agreed to pay the former CIA agent from New York £500,000 a year to run the Tube. And it has almost universally hailed him as Ken's masterstroke.

Now, like Bechtel, Kiley is a shrewd operator and has a track record of delivery. He picked up the New York Subway in 1983 and within seven years had transformed the system from a graffiti covered 'hole' to a world class rail system. He has since set up very effective business links so that the public transport future is now inextricably linked to the prosperity of the City.

Certainly he is a man who really knows about how to mobilise political, public and business will. He has operated at the highest political levels in the US yet managed to achieve guru status with the public, primarily because he has actually achieved a visible improvement in the quality of the subway.

However, let us not forget that he was working from a very low base in New York - the subway was in such a mess that people would not use it. London's system has a whole different set of problems, not least its age, depth and sheer complexity.

Nor does London have Manhatten's ready-made toll points with which to underpin a bond issue.

Is there really no one in the UK capable of inspiring the kind of confidence that Kiley brings?

No doubt he will be up to the job, and for London's sake let's hope so. But he will need a firm grasp of the British public's attitude to public transport costs.

The irony is that the only construction company boss mentioned in last weekend's Channel Four/Observer Power 300 list was Ray Crane, the head of Ove Arup & Partners' New York office. Does this reflect yet more unbridled confidence from the UK in the Americans?

More likely it proves that in the US, the public and politicians appreciate the work of people like Crane and Kiley, and give them the respect and clout that they deserve.

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