As we stride forward into 2011 with all the enthusiasm and energy that accompanies the raft of New Year’s resolutions that traditionally flow from the extended holiday period, it is reassuring to see that infrastructure remains resolutely in the headlines.
As a profession, civil engineers will clearly continue to face some pretty major challenges in 2011.
The snow may have disappeared but the fall-out from November and December’s icy weather continues. Virgin’s decision to refuse to pay BAA for its access to Heathrow has prompted very serious questions about whether future airport closures can be avoided.
And certainly across the transport network similar taxing issues are being addressed. Scottish transport minister Stewart Stevenson may have fallen on his sword but the issue of how to ensure the UK’s road system continues to function in extreme weather remains live. Similarly for the UK rail system, millions of commuters will have returned to work facing higher ticket prices and a renewed expectation that service levels must continue to climb.
Meanwhile, of course, there is the aftermath of Northern Ireland’s catastrophic water supply failure which saw tens of thousands left without vital supplies for days and weeks. Engineers will be rightly embarrassed of a failure on such a scale and determined to ensure it is never repeated.
“Unless you are in banking, there really is very little public cash available for investment”
And while the rest of the UK water industry can look to the improvements that it has made over the decade since privatisation, most companies will be aware that extreme event remains a threat to critical infrastructure.
As demonstrated in Queensland, Australia, of course, where once again we see just how totally dependent we are on critical infrastructure and how much planning – and investment – needs to go into protecting society. Not least as, in all probability, such extreme weather is only set to become more frequent around the globe.
Yet as we are all constantly reminded, the great challenge facing the UK remains the economy. Unless you are in banking, there really is very little public cash available for investment, whether it’s for energy supply and a new generation of nuclear and off-shore wind generation, transport and new electric and low-emission vehicles, water supply or flood management.
So in 2011 – and beyond – we really will have to become more and more innovative with our engineering and our financing ideas if we are to live up to our role as public protectors.
The very enlightening – although perhaps unsurprising – findings of the recent Infrastructure UK report into the cost of infrastructure in the UK demonstrates that there is work we can do to boost affordability. But fundamentally we must also continue to make the case that a pound spent on infrastructure is two or three pounds saved or added elsewhere in the economy.
- Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor