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Comment | Major projects must put customers first

Mark Hansford

There is much engineering excitement this month about proposals for a high speed rail version of the M25, as proposed by Expedition.

There is also excitement about a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland, proposed by the Scottish Government.

Both are bold ideas, and both have engineering and economic merit.

But while we engineers are getting giddy about these tantalising grands projets, the public is getting excited in rather different ways about another bunch of projects.

In Sheffield the outrage about the city council’s tree felling policy in the name of a £2bn PFI highways improvement programme has taken another turn for the worse this month, with the latest attempt to fell one tree requiring 33 police officers and 20 security staff to deter protesters. And there is no sign of a let up in public fury, with a funding-raising concert fronted by Pulp front man Jarvis Cocker selling out in minutes. The day job for Sheffield’s contractor Amey’s engineers really cannot be a great one right now.

Cxf81a 3 crop

Cxf81a 3 crop

Anti-roads protest: Coming back?

Those engineers are not alone, as tempers are flaring in north west London, where an ancient woodland is soon to be bulldozered in the name of High Speed 2. There, a High Court injunction has just been granted to bar eight protesters from demonstrating on the site of the Colne Valley viaduct. Good luck with that – Sheffield’s got one of those and it has not done much good.

This is serious stuff. If you follow the right people on Twitter you’ll soon see there are plenty more protest groups gearing up for action. The mood has changed and it is not so inconceivable that we could see the return of scenes witnessed at Twyford Down and then at the Newbury bypass back in the early 1990s.

Controversy coming up

And this is all before we get stuck into the truly controversial schemes that are coming up, mainly sitting on Highways England’s to-do list. They include the Lower Thames Crossing, which will drive a six or eight lane highway  through the Kent countryside; the £260M  Arundel bypass running through the South Downs in West Sussex, and then the daddy of them all, the £1.6bn A303 Stonehenge tunnel.

So how do engineers, and those that we advise, act to ensure we balance the need to deliver desired improvements for customers, while also being sensitive to the needs of affected local communities?

As we discuss this month, there is a real need to make the public feel that projects are “done with them, not to them”.

Tim Jones has much to do with the solution. He is in charge of delivering the Lower Thames Crossing for Highways England and he is of the mistakes of the past.  As he tells us this month: “I think what we did to Twyford Down was absolutely outrageous. It is the worst piece of civil engineering I think I have ever seen in my life”.

One of the challenges presented by the current planning regime is that debate about the need for major schemes is taken away from public inquiries, with that decision already having been made through a national policy statement. Debate about those is aimed at professionals and it leaves the public feeling left out.

One proposal on the table is for a French-style commission for public engagement, which would act as a forum for debating major schemes at the earliest possible stage. It was introduced in France in the late 1980s when it – like the UK – was having problems with protests against major schemes – in its case its high speed rail network.

As we report this month, it has served France – and French engineers – well. With the mood now one of protest, we might be well advised to encourage our political paymasters to take a look.

  • Mark Hansford is New Civil Engineer’s editor

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