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Election fodder


If there can be any good news following Scottish Water's catastrophic sewage overflow into the Firth of Forth at Edinburgh this week it is that engineering and the vital role it plays has again been put centre stage.

As we approach the 3 May Scottish elections it is increasingly clear that infrastructure is playing a major role in inuencing the political landscape.

Failure of the crucial main pump at the Seafield pumping station could of course simply be put down to poor engineering planning, maintenance or historic under investment in the infrastructure. And certainly there are some fairly basic questions that will have to be asked about what happened over the weekend.

In general we need to hear more about the management of risks at Seafield and the way the failure's consequences were handled. Specifically we will need to hear more about the time it took to get the pump repaired and why it was possible for a 100M litres of untreated sewage to continue to be discharged.

And it is right that these questions are asked since, while certainly preferable to sewage over owing into the streets of Edinburgh, it is unacceptable for the emergency overow to have been operated in the way that is was.

But beyond these operational questions it is very interesting that we have also heard a great deal of criticism this week of the private ance deal under which Scottish Water maintains most of its infrastructure.

And the whole 'should we shouldn't we' debate about Scottish water privatisation has surfaced to join the hot political discussion over nancing transport projects north of the border.

We have heard the major parties and politicians rush to blame the private finance deal struck by the publicly owned Scottish Water and we have heard decisive talk about the need to press ahead with full privatisations.

'Vote for us and we would ensure that this kind of failure never happens again, ' we hear them cry. 'Vote for us and we will ensure that your money is/ isn't spent on an airport rail link.

Vote for us and we will boost investment in public transport/vital road improvement schemes.' Election politics it may be. But the clear point is that by comparison to most politicians and political parties in Westminster, Scottish politicians do seem to care about their engineering and infrastructure. And they also seem to know about the issues and are prepared to use them as a way to woo voters.

To hear the Scottish National Party, Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party arguing and trading policy over water and rail improvement schemes - and threatening to cancel or kickstart them as a means to appeal to voters - is refreshing. It is all too rare in British politics.

Perhaps it's a uniquely Scottish thing - certainly much engineering pedigree originates north of the border. Perhaps it has more to do with the 'local' nature of Scottish politics.

Who can say? But it underlines the point made by former ICE president Mark Whitby this week about the need for the profession to raise its prole, stick its head over the parapet and engage with the real issues now being discussed by politicians.

That the ICE, CECA and ACE have made a start with recent warnings about capacity is refreshing.

But we must rattle cages more regularly to reposition engineering at the front of the national consciousness.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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