What is infrastructure made of? – metal theft, society and its hard and soft systems

‘Infrastructure’ is a buzz word that gets a heavy usage in public policy these days. But would we all agree on what it actually means?

A couple of tweets received this morning got me thinking about this. One tweet was from @Metal_Watch and declared: “It’s time they made an offence of ‘possession of infrastructural metal without written authority from its lawful owner’”. Whilst the other tweet asserted that that streets ‘are no longer regarded as places’ by their local communities.

In response to the first tweet the lawyer in me pondered how – in practice – an ‘infrastructural’ point of origin could be attributed to any particular cache of pillaged metal. One of the core problems with tackling metal theft is the generic nature of these materials once stripped from the built environment. The only exceptions may be the distinctiveness of rail and high voltage transmission electricity cables. Everything else has that ‘could have come from many sources’ character that makes re-integration of such material back into the resource chain so easy (and therefore lucrative).

But what also struck me is the implicit suggestion that theft of metal from infrastructure is somehow of different character (severity?) to theft of metal from ‘elsewhere’. I share this gut feeling – but I’m not sure why, where the ‘logic’ of that feeling actually leads and/or whether everyone with that feeling would aspire towards the same conclusion.

Kevin Whiteacre made a good point in a blog on www.metaltheft.net last year: that if we watch how people respond to metal theft we see how people use classic prejudices and political positions to make sense of the crime wave. Whiteacre points out that whilst some may see in metal theft a degenerative legacy born of statism (and ultimately communism) others see it as the acquisitive consequence of neo-liberal individualism. Thus the bogeyman is whoever you usually turn to.

And I wonder whether you might get a similar divergence if you asked such people to list what ‘infrastructure’ means to them (and I’m particularly influenced by Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of liberty here: a ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’). For some might foreground what we might call the ‘infrastructure of doing’ (power, transport and communications facilities that enable individuals to enact their will upon the world) whilst others might instead equate infrastructure with an ‘infrastructure of protection’ in which socialised facilities of public benefit are foregrounded (criminal justice system, schools, hospitals, churches, cemeteries). Another way to draw this distinction would be between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ infrastructure. Soft infrastructure extends out to including all institutions and processes necessary for the effective functioning of society. Hard infrastructure is confined to networks of fixed assets that convey information or things.

We see prominent examples of pillage from both hard and soft infrastructure in contemporary metal theft and in each case calls for ‘something to be done’ – but would all of these count as ‘infrastructure’ so far as the law makers might be concerned? I suspect not. Recent UK Governments have tended to equate infrastructure with facilitating economic growth, thus confining the term to ‘hard’ infrastructure – and have shied away from any wider formulation of the term, one that might unwittingly open a door to acknowledging a wider  embodiment of ‘infrastructure’ underlying modern society. The entirety (hard plus soft infrastructure) does though sometimes get a sideways look-in in public policy through resilience (formerly known as civil defence or civil contingency) planning.

It is clear that in public policy usage the term ‘infrastructure’ is thought of in terms of the ‘infrastructure of doing’. It is about communication, mobilities, circulation of power – all in order that others are enabled to ‘do’. Thus the UK National Infrastructure Plan (HM Treasury 2011) states that: “Safe, reliable and efficient infrastructure networks form the backbone of every modern economy” (p13) and then emphasises this ‘economic’ reading of infrastructure with the following: “Evidence shows that investing in economic infrastructure is important for growth and that, for example, building better transport links and energy generation capacity can have a stronger positive effect on GDP per capita than other forms of investment”.

According to Lewis (2008) ‘infrastructure’ is a term of fairly recent vintage and one originally coined in France as a railway engineering term, thereafter finding an Anglo-Saxon twentieth century military usage (referring to permanent installations as a basis for military operations). In more recent usage the expression has come to be equated with a country’s economic foundations. For example, here in the UK, the Planning Act 2008 set up the short lived Infrastructure Planning Commission to have a national remit for authorising ‘nationally significant infrastructure projects’, and these are defined by list to include power, transport hub, water and waste utility physical projects (section 14) but the Act didn’t itself define ‘infrastructure’. As of 1 April 2012 the Commission has been formally abolished pursuant to the Localism Act 2012. But that Act (and other current coalition Government initiatives) still shows a foregrounding of – and desire to promote – ‘hard’ (and masculine?) infrastructure.

The point that I’m hovering over here is that infrastructure is currently about the economy rather than about society. It is resolutely about the term’s ‘hard’ rather than ‘soft’ usage. Sure, the two are not entirely indivisible, but to legislate in a way that foregrounds economic priorities is essentially a political decision that reveals something about contemporary priorities.

The current coalition government can hardly be labelled as Keynesian. Therefore its commitment to ‘pump-prime’ a private sector led economic recovery via certain infrastructure investment is a step that requires tight control over what legal definitions may come to be attributed to ‘infrastructure’ (and its protection alongside its enhancement), for it is only a fine definitional line whereby otherwise a markedly different spectre might unwittingly be unleashed were the full – soft – roots and branches of society’s infrastructure to be acknowledged.

I would like the scourge of metal theft to be addressed in terms of its impact on both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ infrastructure. I am not denying that the power and rail systems need particular protective focus (and here see my recent blog on railway imperatives: http://wp.me/p2dJQ2-6K). But, for me, infrastructure cannot be a matter of ‘take and not give’ by its users. Infrastructure and community are intertwined. That is why it struck me as sad that the second tweet referred to at the start suggested that people don’t see the roads as part of their sense of place. Accordingly to at least one translation of Socrates, the ancient Greek acknowledged this interconnectedness over 2000 years ago:

“In order to function at all, a person needs the facilities and arrangements available from community, security, institutions, and economic goods, and that these can only be available when individuals support the concept of community and the responsibilities that it entails. Chief among these responsibilities is the provision of infrastructure and the services it provides.” (quoted in Fertis & Fertis, 1998)


Berlin, I (1958) ‘Two concepts of liberty’ essay at http://www.cas.umt.edu/phil/faculty/walton/Berlin2Concepts.pdf

Fertis G.F. & Fertis, A. (1998) Evolutions of Infrastructure: 15,000 years of history, Vantage Press

HM Treasury (2011) National Infrastructure Plan 2011 at http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/national_infrastructure_plan2011.htm

Lewis, S. (1998) ‘The etymology of infrastructure and the infrastructure of the internet’ available at http://hakpaksak.wordpress.com/2008/09/22/the-etymology-of-infrastructure-and-the-infrastructure-of-the-internet/



About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

2 Responses to What is infrastructure made of? – metal theft, society and its hard and soft systems

  1. For me infrastructure has a straightforward linguistic origin infra meaning between structure meaning buildings. Infrastructure is that which joins different nodes of the built environment.

    I feel attacks on the infrastructure are more egregious because they have an effect on a greater number of victims. They may have serious unforeseen consequences such as stopping a kidney machine from working, closing a small business or causing a serious accident with loss of life.

    I would welcome legislation to make theft of infrastructural metal an unappealing avenue of crime for these reasons. I feel that if there was an offence of possession of infrastructural metal without authority this would go some way to assist the practitioners of Law Enforcement (Police). In many cases they will have a suspect under arrest with a quantity of what they fully know to be stolen cable but will not know where it came from. I am proposing to reverse the burden of proof in these narrow circumstances so that the onus is on the person in possession of the material to prove they are in lawful possession of it.

    I would not propose to give a tight legal definition of “infrastructural metal.” I would propose to allow the words to have their normal meaning. Case law would quickly determine that which falls within the intention of the law.

  2. Thanks for the response Metal_Watch. I sense an engineer’s perspective and I think you have a greater faith in the ability of the law to iron out its own meanings than I do. It would certainly be interesting to see lawyers arguing over what ‘infrastructural’ means if we went down this road…

    As I said in my post – giving (hard) infrastructure priority for protection has the right ‘feel’ at gut level. Though I’m still not sure it will be workable as a distinction in practice for the reasons previously stated.

    It was interesting that you illustrated your argument in favour of special protection for electricity (hard) infrastructure by an example of power cuts to kidney dialysis (as healthcare is ‘soft’ infrastructure). Perhaps this shows the difficulty of drawing a rigid distinction between the two types of infrastructure?

    All the best.

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