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A few weeks that could shape UK infrastructure for generations

This summer isn’t just about Wimbledon and the Ashes – over the coming weeks, decisions that will have a major impact on the shape of UK infrastructure for decades to come are expected.

Water, energy and transport projects worth in excess of £40bn are awaiting the green light from politicians, business chiefs and even judges. Read NCE’s guide below.

London’s super sewer

Three consortiums involving eight major contractors have been awarded preferred bidder status for construction of the £4bn Thames Tideway Tunnel. But the lucrative contracts won’t be signed until an “infrastructure provider” has been found to finance and deliver the mega-project. Thames Water originally pledged that this overseeing body would be appointed by May 2015, and an announcement is expected any day now.

Appointment of an infrastructure provider would unlock a major period of activity leading up to a start on site next year. The 25km-long super sewer could be actively shifting waste water across London to Abbey Mills Pumping Station near Stratford by 2023.

Sewage will then be transferred by the Lee Tunnel from Abbey Mills to Beckton Sewage Treatment Works, with the overall system helping prevent discharges into the River Thames.

While the outstanding infrastructure provider deal is the last main barrier for the project to overcome, a couple of legal hurdles could remain. Two of four bids for a judicial review of the decision to award planning permission to the Thames Tideway Tunnel have been turned down, while two more remain outstanding.

Airport expansion in the South East

The panel charged with recommending a solution to the looming air capacity crisis in the South East closed its final consultation last week. The Sir Howard Davies-led Airports Commission had asked for extra comments on data produced by detailed dispersion modelling of the impact the three shortlisted proposals for extra runways would have on air quality.

The commission received a full-blooded response from Heathrow – which would get a third runway under two of the three proposals – and fierce rival Gatwick, which wants a second take-off and landing strip under the other.

While air pollution is a major issue in light of court rulings that the UK must tackle breaches of limits set out in European law, the Civil Aviation Authority has called for noise mitigation to be a key factor in the decision.

With all consultations closed, the time is surely over for talking, and a recommendation is likely to be made by the commission to ministers before Parliament’s summer recess on 21 July. Chancellor George Osborne this month gave hope of a swift rubber stamping of this decision, telling guests at the CBI annual dinner that the government was going to “take” Davies’ decision “and get it built”.

Both airports have said they could produce a second runway by 2025, with Heathrow’s £15.6bn plans set to cost twice as much as Gatwick’s.

New nuclear power plant in Somerset

The £16bn Hinkley Point C power station proposal is not only a massive construction project in its own right, it is the forerunner for a swathe of new nuclear plants that could transform the face of energy production in the UK. But will it ever get built?

When the European Commission approved a package of measures last autumn to allow the UK government to subsidise the electricity produced at Hinkley Point, and to guarantee some of the debt raised to finance its construction, it seemed the project was almost a reality.

Contractors were expecting the final investment decision from promoter EDF before the end of 2014. Then hopes turned to the start of 2015, before EDF said in February that the go-ahead could still be “months” away.

With the General Election out the way, and with the political significance of the decision, an announcement by EDF is quite possible before Parliament rises on 21 July.

A final go-ahead for the scheme would come as a massive relief to the Bouygues/Laing O’Rourke joint venture named preferred bidder for the £2bn main civils package at Hinkley Point C almost three years ago. It would also allow the next phase of works on the Somerset site to get underway and boost the chances of further new nuclear projects reaching the construction stage.

Tidal power in Wales

A number of preferred bidders have recenty been named for the ambitious £1bn scheme to harness tidal energy in Swansea Bay. But the project remains subject to planning decisions from the British and Welsh governments – both are expected in the next week.

Project promoter Tidal Lagoon Power submitted an application for a development consent order to the Planning Inspectorate in February 2014, with a recommendation made confidentially to the energy secretary earlier this year. A ministerial decision is due by 10 June.

An application for a marine license was submitted to Natural Resources Wales in February 2014 and an announcement is expected to be made on that at the same time, with the two planning bodies working closely together.

There was a boost for the project in this spring’s Budget when chancellor George Osborne said it would move into the first phase of commercial negotiation on a contract for difference. This subsidy deal will ultimately determine whether the plan to build the 9.7km-long seawall is affordable.

The project hit its target of £220M of pledged equity earlier this year, with the remaining £780M expected to be raised on the debt market.

If given the green light by ministers, Tidal Lagoon Power hopes to reach financial close on the Swansea Bay scheme this summer – and begin construction immediately. Laing O’Rourke and Alun Griffiths are among the British contractors who will benefit.

Significant in itself, the Swansea Bay scheme is just the first of five major tidal lagoons planned by the project promotor for UK waters.

Garden bridge over the Thames

Smaller in terms of monetary value than the schemes above, the Thames Garden Bridge will have a major impact on the landscape and indeed the perception of the engineering profession.

The controversial scheme – backed by actress Joanna Lumley and criticised by many NCE readers – would cost £175M and sit between Blackfriars and Waterloo Bridges in the heart of London.

While preferred bidder status has been awarded to a joint venture of French firm Bouygues and Italian contractor Cimolai, the project still requires further cash. A fundraising event is scheduled at Harrods this month featuring a performance by pop star Jessie Ware.

But the biggest barrier to the project starting on site as planned at the start of 2016 is a judicial review of its planning approval, due to be heard this month.

Lambeth and Westminster Councils both backed plans for the garden bridge – as did London mayor Boris Johnson – but a judge ruled in April that opponents’ claims that the structure will obstruct views to the north of the river, and that there is inadequate provision for on-going maintenance costs, must be heard.

The hearing will see Michael Ball, head of campaigning body Waterloo Community Development Group, put his case against Lambeth Council’s decision to approve Thomas Heatherwick’s Thames Garden Bridge.

If it survives the judicial review, and raises the necessary funds, the bridge could be open - until midnight – as soon as June 2018.

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