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Age old problems in worn out Britain

It is impossible to travel far in the UK without being presented with the fruits of Victorian infrastructure innovation.


Listed structure: Beaminster tunnel

This country is a living museum for these engineering feats because many of our transport and water service networks rely on them to meet the demands of modern daily life.

There is much to be proud of as the engineers that built them are still remembered. Indeed they helped position the UK has a powerhouse of civil engineering.

But should these structures - many of which now have listed status - be preserved if they no longer meet the changing needs of modern society?

When a fatal landslide closed the Beaminster tunnel in July last year, the choice of repair method was guided from the outset by the fact that the portals are Grade II listed.

Dorset County Council principal engineer Matt Jones’ early discussions with the planning department in the immediate aftermath of the landslide indicated that demolition of the structure was not going to be an option.

Jones said that replacing the tunnel with a cutting or bypass was never really a financially viable option, so demolishing the tunnel’s portals was something the council wanted to avoid.

Fortunately for the structure’s heritage status a soil nailing solution is in the early stages of being delivered on site.

This will hopefully return the tunnel - believed to be the oldest road tunnel in the UK - back to daily use with little change to its outward appearance.

Nonetheless, the issue of listed status at Beaminster is not an isolated one - and the solution is not always so easy or as cost effective.

Yorkshire Water’s Butterley reservoir is a good example of the problems relating to preserving the past over meeting current and future needs.

In October last year, experts warned that there was a risk of catastrophic failure unless work was carried out to replace the Grade II listed dam spillway.

The ICE panel engineer responsible for the repair scheme Andy Hughes told NCE that a big flooding event could cause Butterley to fail.

Despite these warnings, work to replace the spillway is being opposed by local action group Save Butterley Spillway, which claims the water company’s replacement plan has “sidelined” the structure’s historical significance.

Butterley Reservoir is 13km south west of Huddersfield, sitting on the border with the Peak District. It is the part of a four reservoir system and the iconic spillway - built between 1891 and 1906 - is listed in the Victorian Society’s 10 most endangered buildings in England and Wales.

Yorkshire Water plans to replace the spillway so the dam can comply with the Reservoir Act 1975 - legislation that is probably older than some listed structures.

While few would favour the widespread replacement of all ageing infrastructure with new structures, a balance must be found.

Look at most listed buildings and you will not find a structure in its original state but one that has gradually been adapted and added to in order to make the structure needs of its occupants.

At what point did we become so opposed to this evolution and allow history to prevent progress rather than just guide it?

“We are facing the same challenge that was tackled in the 1850s during the Industrial Revolution in this country, which inspired many engineers to build a lot of the infrastructure that we still use today”

Sir John Armitt

Speaking at last month’s NCE Graduate Awards ceremony, Olympic Delivery Authority chairman Sir John Armitt made some interesting points about the challenge civil engineers - and society as a whole - face in meeting future infrastructure demands.

“Population forecasts suggest that two thirds of the global population will live in cities by 2050,” he said. “As a result we are facing the same challenge that was tackled in the 1850s during the Industrial Revolution in this country, which inspired many engineers to build a lot of the infrastructure that we still use today.

“However, this Victorian infrastructure is wearing out and needs replacing with structures that have the same, if not better, potential to meet future demand.”

He added that engineers have a responsibility and cannot sit back and wait for others to make decisions. “At present we wait until we reach a crisis in demand before we are forced to make a decision,” he said.

Armitt welcomed the government’s commitment to invest £5.5bn in infrastructure made in the Autumn Statement but called for longer term thinking.

He is currently heading up a taskforce, backed by the Labour Party, to work on developing policies for the next 25 to 40 years that will gain political consensus to allow delivery to be supported through changes in government.

“This approach worked for the Olympics, and the Labour Party wants the same approach to be applied to other areas of infrastructure development too,” he said.

Clearly delivering this infrastructure utopia would help improve forecasting for the UK’s civil engineering industry, but even with political consensus, planning and heritage issues could easily prove to be stumbling blocks.

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