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Is this real democracy?


Does the £10bn Crossrail project really have a future? I hope so - but there is, without question, a long, long way to go before it gets a green light.

After just four weeks of parliamentary scrutiny, it is clear that, even with a government supported hybrid bill to ease the way, planning approval for this highly controversial - and hugely expensive - scheme will be no shoo-in.

Yet it is equally clear that, despite the government's best efforts to streamline the process, we still do not have a sensible system with which to assess schemes of this nature.

Democracy must of course prevail and it is right and proper that objections and petitions be heard. But the activities within Committee Room Five of the House of Commons are, in many respects, bizarre.

Bizarre in that we see lawyers presenting, explaining and arguing the (simplified) technical merits of specific details of a highly complex engineering scheme to a group of non-technical members of Parliament.

It is bizarre in that we see highly experienced and learned engineering experts presenting technical evidence simplified almost to the level of Ladybird books.

It makes me ask: What is this whole, expensive, longwinded process supposed to achieve? Is it really democratic? What happened to the engineering in all the legal manoeuvring?

No one is surprised to see the Crossrail team suffering a fairly intense mauling during the early stages of this Parliamentary scrutiny. And with 357 petitions to deal with and rebut, the next six, nine, 12, 18 or however many months the process takes, will be an intense time for the project team.

Perhaps that is as it should be. Already we have seen some pretty robust cases presented to challenge Crossrail design assumptions on station capacity, noise and, most recently, the cost of slab track. All important stuff.

But the devil is, of course, always in the detail. And as each of the objections and planning concerns are heard over the next few months it will be the sexy details rather than the engineering fundamentals that catch the attention of both MPs and the media and that will, no doubt, eventually have a huge bearing on the project's future.

Certainly it is important to ensure that we have got the engineering decisions right on a project such as this. But are MPs really the best people to judge such matters? Surely that is a job best entrusted to professional engineers?

Acting Crossrail chief executive Keith Berryman is right to hope the process can be completed by the summer Parliamentary recess. And he is right to be positive about the prospect of the project achieving a 2009 on-site start date. It is an ambitious target but by all accounts it remains (just about) realistic.

The next few months will be an intense and frustrating period for Berryman and his team as they are asked to justify and defend the outline designs and the assumptions that have been made over the last 15 years or so since the project started.

Yet for all the show of democracy, Crossrail, like all other major public infrastructure projects, will live or die by political will. Acceptance of this really would make life so much simpler.

If the government wants Crossrail - and secretary of state for transport Alistair Darling appears to - why not just get on with it? If nothing else it would reduce the amount of money spent on lawyers.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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