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Comment | Eight projects to show the world we're serious

Mark Hansford

It’s been a difficult week for civil engineering. As our online poll shows (and please add your vote), 57% of you think Brexit will be bad for civil engineering. But let’s try to be positive.

Maybe, just maybe, government will seize on a major infrastructure project to show the world where it stands. To show that it is still able to govern and to make decisions, and to show the world that Britain is still open for business.

But what infrastructure project? Here are eight projects that may (or may not) set the right tone for the negotiations that are to come:

1. Boris Island

He’s ruled himself out of the race to be the new prime minister but he is still a man of influence. So maybe it is time to dust off Boris Johnson’s first and truest love: the Thames Estuary Airport. It was a project he gave huge backing to while London mayor as an alternative to his hated Heathrow.

Boris Island

Boris Island

Binned by the Davies Commission as being simply too expensive, and there remains the challenging question of exactly who would fund it, it remains the most visionary of all the south east airport expansion options and would send a strong message that the new Britain wants to connect with the world.

2. Anglo-Irish tunnel

Back in 2004 the Institute of Engineers of Ireland’s Vision of Transport in Ireland in 2050 report imagined a 100km long tunnel being built between the ports of Fishguard and Rosslare, creating a freight line to Europe. The report also included ideas for a Belfast-Dublin-Cork high speed line, matched on the British side by a high speed line duplicating the Great Western Main Line. While the report’s vision gained little traction at the time – and low-cost airlines have probably spiked the idea as a commercially viable option – maybe the route could perform a role in convincing Irish cousins that Britain remains a partner?

3. Second Channel Tunnel

What project could show Britain’s commitment to remaining part of Europe more than a second Channel Tunnel? Detailed proposals do exist. A feasibility study was put to the French and UK governments in 2000 by Eurotunnel, operator of the existing link, outlining plans for a £2.6bn single bore, 15m excavated diameter, 38km long road tunnel. The study also outlined the potential for a second £3bn rail link which would be used by Eurostar and international freight trains, leaving the existing tunnel to be used by freight and car shuttle services.

OK, the study was carried out only because the company was obliged under the terms of its original tunnel concession to submit proposals for a road link to the government by the end of 1999. And a reappraisal in 2010, when the governments could have intervened to appoint an alternative backer for a second tunnel, did pass without action. But maybe now is the time?

4. Transatlantic tunnel

Back in 2009 the idea of a transatlantic tunnel was seen as pure madness. But a concept was produced for a $1trillion suspended tunnel to carry a 7,500km/h maglev train between New York and London. The idea was dusted off more recently with the arrival of Elon Musk’s Hyperloop concept: and while that too is still a concept, test tracks are being built and a funding war-chest is building through crowd sourcing. So if the desire is to keep on the good side of President Trump and jump to the head of the queue on trade deals, maybe $1trillion is a small price to pay?

5. UK Spaceport

Incredibly, this isn’t a wild idea or concept; this was actually in last month’s Queen’s speech. Bizarre, but true: the Modern Transport Bill was announced and underlined government’s aims to ensure the UK is at the forefront of the modern transport revolution by introducing legislation to enable the future development of the UK’s first commercial spaceports. The Department for Transport is leading the search for a location with Cornwall, Scotland and Wales being mentioned. With more than 200 small satellites launched in 2014, the opportunity is there – apparently - for the UK to take a global position. And that would be handy now, wouldn’t it?

6. High Speed 2

Will chancellor George Osborne get to leave as his legacy High Speed 2? Still peskilly mired in Parliamentary process and still in need of Royal Assent it’s not one he could fire a starting gun on before a bold new government forms this autumn. And as a piece of entente cordiale or world-leadership it perhaps doesn’t quite have the same impact as other projects on the list. But maybe it could serve to placate Scottish citizens who feel their future is part of Europe and not part of the UK. Maybe a hasty re-phasing of the project to start north (very north) and head south mightn’t be a bad idea. OK, it would probably mean all the work gone into it so far as a London-heading-north project will have been wasted, but needs must?

7/8. Stonehenge Tunnel/Trans Pennine Tunnel

Two ambitious projects looking decidedly dicey are the Stonehenge and trans-Pennine tunnels. Both at the distinctly early stage of feasibility study, and both with technical challenges aplenty, neither appear to fit the bill as appeasing disgruntled Europeans or setting out Britain’s aspirations on a world stage. They are also schemes that mainly go to relieving the commuting misery of the very demographic that has left Cameron, Osborne and co in the mess they now find themselves in – and there may just be a simmering feeling of “reap what you sow”. Not that politicians would ever be that vindictive…

Readers' comments (3)

  • The Brexit promoters are resigning fast, leaving "the sinking ship"? Scotland must seek independence and try to remain in the EU.

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  • Given the UK's technical exellence in tunnelling and the need not just to retain but develop those skills together with a real, literally concrete committment, from Westminster to 'the Northern Powerhouse' idea, rather than the platitudes we've had so far, how about a Leeds Underground system - for the largest city in Europe without a tram/metro system?

    The groundwork's even been done already by an enthusiastic citizen.

    Leeds City Council/City Region just needs that cash to be committed.

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  • stephen gibson

    The Scottish have a proud history of Civil Engineering at an international level. Why would them wish to tie themselves to the sinking ship of the EU? Not that anyone in the EU has suggested they would let Scotland join anyway. Italy, Greece and Spain have suffered 20 years of stagnation and have 10 times the unemployment for young civil engineering professionals compared to the UK.

    Nationally what is needed is more serious UK infrastructure investment in the Northern Powerhouse and funds to local community led projects across the UK.

    Within 2 years we will have the opportunity to deliver world leading civil engineering design through free and fair international trade partnerships unhindered by the EU.

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