If we could pinpoint the moment 2016 truly became an extraordinary year, it would probably be at around 04.40am on June 24.
That was the moment when broadcasters announced that there was no way the Remain side could overtake the Leave vote in the referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union.
It was a decision that would deeply impact many businesses in civil engineering in aspects from skills supply to trade tariffs.
But it was the unfolding political ramifications that had the immediate and massive impact on the industry. As the sand shifted from under feet of the country, prime minister Theresa May’s new government looked for something literally concrete to hold on to. And that’s when it started to get really exciting on the New Civil Engineer newsdesk.
KPMG’s infrastructure partner Richard Threlfall summed the year up saying: “Back in January and February the general mood of the industry was upbeat. That all came to a shuddering halt in June. What came to a halt was expectation rather than reality. Confidence was replaced with uncertainty and it sent all industries grappling for a sense of direction. Perhaps what was surprising was the resilience of the government for the infrastructure sector. In the wake of the referendum there were voices calling for the cancellation of the three H’s, but infrastructure held firm. That was good for the industry and provided stability in choppy seas.”
Politics and the three H’s
It was the three H’s that grabbed the headlines this year: Hinkley, Heathrow and HS2
Then prime minister David Cameron’s post-Brexit vote departure unleashed massive political uncertainty and this was compounded when EDF, which had finally got around to deciding to go ahead with Hinkley Point C, was blindsided by the government deciding to carry out yet another review. Like much of the media across the country, the New Civil Engineer newsdesk was just about to put live a mass of content on the go-ahead, when it was knocked for six by the government’s lukewarm response. The fanfare descended into damp squib. It all finally got the go-ahead in September, but this controversial project is only over the first hurdle and we’ll be watching it throughout 2017.
For Heathrow, Cameron’s departure – and his infamous quote ”the third runway at Heathrow is not going ahead, no ifs, no buts” – helped clear the path for take-off. Without having to take a U-turn, May’s government finally approved plans for a third runway at Heathrow in October, but with one important variation. Cue New Civil Engineer editor Mark Hansford trying to explain live on BBC News just exactly how a runway ramp might be built over the M25. It has still got to go through a National Policy Statement process and parliamentary vote, but the engine has started and the engineering is going to be fascinating.
High Speed 2 is still stuck in parliamentary process but we know more about its preferred second phase route. More importantly for the sector, contracts worth £900M were awarded this year for the enabling works for the first phase. Ultimately 26,650 construction jobs will be created at its peak. The media is still to be won over on this one – houses will be demolished, works will disturb residents on Christmas Day, but the overall signs are very promising.
Focus on flooding
Rewinding from the second half of the year’s big stories, the start of 2016 was dominated by storms. Christmas and the New Year had seen the devastating impact of floods – Storm Frank hit particularly hard, taking the West Coast Main Line north of Carlisle out of service for weeks. Desmond, Eva, Henry and Gertrude were no kinder, giving the Environment Agency and Network Rail a massive repair bill and the season saw 14 rivers in the North of England recording their highest ever flows. The ICE-led National Needs Assessment says that flooding costs the UK economy £1bn per year and it is down to civil engineers to work out how to mitigate the increasing risks to infrastructure from climate change.
As if to underline the fact that 2016 was the year when anything could happen, US president elect Donald Trump’s win put infrastructure on the front page on the other side of the Pond too. While the tender for a wall along the US and Mexico border hasn’t been published yet, his infamous plan stole the thunder from rather more serious policies on how to upgrade the US’s ailing infrastructure. Both the UK and the US governments see infrastructure as an economic stimulus and we’re expecting the sector to remain as high on the national news agendas next year as it has this.
Looking forward – an industry that’s more than mega projects
So at the end of a turbulent news year, where does the industry stand looking ahead to 2017? Well, much of this isn’t on the front page of Sunday broadsheets, but it seems to be in a relatively good place.
The Civil Engineering Contractors Association chief executive Alasdair Reisner said that while the sector probably didn’t expect to end up where it is when it started the year, the market outlook is favourable.
“Hinkley and Heathrow are all welcome, but underlying that does seem to be a recognition of infrastructure as a driver of growth. Whatever is happening in the political sphere, people are pushing on with investment rather than holding back,” he said. “We’ve got to see delivery now but it is welcome that we’re seeing progress and contracts awarded. We must remember that the industry is more than mega projects, there’s a lot more that goes on. Generally speaking there is work around, areas of the industry can still be quite challenging, still difficult to make money, but it is not quite in such as difficult position as we were two or three years ago.”
What you read in 2016
The New Civil Engineer newsdesk will always deliver on the big stories, but we try to uncover interesting civil engineering news from all corners of the globe and that’s why our top ten most popular reads for the year cover everything from Heathrow and the Great Western rail electrification to a Dutch-style roundabout and broken Canadian bridge.
2. October: Masonry arch bridge lifted in world first
3. November: Go-ahead for Aberdeen harbour build and dredge
4. September: Slab track confirmed for High Speed 2
6. December: Special report | Heathrow expansion
7. November: Damning report into Great Western electrification
8. November: UK’s first Dutch-style roundabout gets go-ahead
10: March: HS2 civils battle down to nine teams