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Changing events challenge our infrastructure views

Mark Hansford

Last November I wrote “just build them” in reference to our government’s procrastinations over High Speed 2, the Thames Tideway tunnel and a third runway at Heathrow.

But recent stories in NCE - and the subsequent letters - are forcing me to think again about such an assertive statement. Have we got the priorities right?

While there is no “official” infrastructure priority list - our National Infrastructure Plan notoriously remains a wish list - by the volume of political noise it is pretty safe to assume these projects are currently our top three.
High Speed 2 (HS2) is clearly top of the list, and I myself was an eager champion in November.

But when the boss of Britain’s only other high speed railway questions it, one has to think again. And as our straw poll last week showed, many of you have. Letters this week ask challenging and valid questions of the project.

As professor LJS Lesley points out, for the price of HS2 you could build more than 200 general hospitals.

And if we look to the future - as is surely our responsibility as engineers - healthcare is a real crisis in the waiting (if it’s not one already). We have an ageing population; a growing population; an unfit and unhealthy population.

It scares me what our health service might look like in 50 years’ time; and if I’m honest, it scares me a lot more than the prospect of a trip to Manchester without HS2.

Then there is the aviation debate. In November I said a third runway at Heathrow was a “no-brainer” on climate change grounds alone after capacity was put under intense pressure by the flights backlog resulting from the St Jude storm.

But when it comes to addressing climate-related risk, there are clearly bigger issues to confront - as the winter floods reminded us.

Yet what is our response? As Isaac Quintas’s letter points out this week, it seems to be only fear of major loss of life that prompts people to do the right things.

And this fear is building, with the threat posed by climate change-induced sea level rise and extreme weather growing every year.

Then finally there is the Thames Tideway Tunnel. It is a good scheme designed to solve a serious problem. But at £4.5bn how do we compare the value of that with the value of - say - reliable energy supplies. We’ve had some anti-nuclear correspondence in NCE in recent weeks, but this week we have two pro-nuclear letters that in different ways make very coherent arguments for why building new nuclear power capacity should be an absolute priority.

So was I right in November?

I honestly don’t know. I doubt if anyone knows. It’s exactly the problem identified by Sir John Armitt in his Labour-commissioned review of long-term infrastructure planning. His solution was a National Infrastructure Commission that would look 25 to 30 years ahead and set clear priorities. In theory, governments would then be held to account on delivery.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls backed the idea and Armitt is now putting the finishing touches to a draft White Paper and draft legislation that could enact such a plan. It’s going to be unveiled next month.

I for one think we should support it.
» Mark Hansford is NCE’s interim editor

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