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Don’t let the sceptics shoot down our ambitions

Silt. That appears to be the main engineering reason why Tidal Lagoon Power’s aspiration to generate 8% of the UK’s energy need from an entirely renewable, sustainable source is doomed to fail. That’s according to NCE’s Letters pages this week.

Really? Is it really beyond the wit of modern engineers that we cannot combat a bit of suspended sediment in the waters around the Bristol Channel? I don’t know - maybe screens on the turbine intakes?

It’s certainly ironic timing, coming in the week that chancellor George Osborne used last week’s Budget to announce the start of negotiations for a strike price for the Swansea scheme. Political will seems to be behind the scheme even if the engineering will is lacking in some quarters.

I think it says much about our industry that we meet every new idea with scepticism and scorn. Those bold enough to stand up with new ideas are immediately knocked down by a wave of cynicism.

swansea barrage

I would love to hope that it doesn’t have to be that way. We need bold solutions, and we need engineers to feel supported when they stand up and propose them.

We’ve also got a plethora of letters about High Speed 2 this week, spurred on by a recent challenge on the same pages to see some engineering judgement interjected into the high speed rail debate. All of them dislike the current plans; some propose alternatives.

But would anyone with a genuine bona fide alternative get the support of his or her peers today? The route of High Speed 1 was ultimately changed - unquestionably for the better - by a strong individual - Arup’s Mark Bostock - supported by his firm. I’m not sure we’d see that today.

I hope that is not the case. I hope we can embrace and support bold ideas. There are a couple of stories in NCE this week that I think show we can. The first is the development of plans to reopen the 3km long Rhondda tunnel in South Wales. Looking at the pictures of how it stands now, it’s unquestionably a bold engineering move. And I suspect the backers will need some support.

The second is the much bigger story about the unfolding tragedy in Vanuatu. It rams home the importance of the civil engineer in society. There is certainly no doubt about the need for bold thinking when it comes to vulnerable coastal communities.

As NCE Graduate of the Year and Engineers without Borders representative Sophie McPhillips puts it in NCE this week: “This is a reminder that people’s lives can be devastated by extreme weather and the effects of climate change,” she says. “The reports are there, but we need to take notice.”

There is a pressing need for resilient infrastructure around the world, she notes, and it needs to be appropriate for the communities using it. And engineers again have a critical role here. We need to be bold - to ensure what is built is right. We need engineers to stand up and be counted and push for those better, bolder solutions. And they need all our support.

Just like those pushing for tidal lagoons. Be vocal. Lend your support.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor

Readers' comments (3)

  • Large schemes always have their proponents and detractors. HS2 is a transport system that will invariably see the UK transition from oil during its service life. In that context it has a singular lack of ambition and vision. Failure to make provision for additional tracks for local and freight let alone building them from the start is extreme short termism . HS2 is on course to repeat the disastrous decision not to take another 7m of land when building our original motorway system (space for a additional carriageway in each direction. With regard to tidal lagoons, NCE gave much coverage to the dredging of the River Parrett during the great Somerset flood debate, sediment brought upstream from the Severn Estuary is a major component of the rivers siltation problem, a tidal lagoon will no doubt be a much more efficient separation tool than the Parrett but the mechanism is the same. Perhaps a walk along the banks of the River Parrett might be worthwhile for proponents of the Tidal lagoon system. As engineers we need to learn from the past and not continue repeating the same mistakes as we appear bent on doing.

    Steve Trowbridge CEng MICE MIStructE

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  • Sickening lack of innovatory spirit by many civil engineers. Without denigrating technician status, many so called chartered members behave like traditional technicians: follow rules, standards and 'we have always done it this way' as I said in a briefing a few years ago.

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  • This article has a pretty hectoring tone.

    Surely it is beholden on engineers to question the value to society of schemes and indeed this responsibility is effectively enshrined in the ICE Code of Conduct. I would argue that the problem is that there is not enough questioning, rather than that there is too much (for instance HS2 charging ahead, despite no convincing evidence that this is the best place to invest).

    Also, the correspondent who mentioned silt in his letter explicitly supported the scheme and was merely pointing out an issue that might need to be considered. Nowhere does he say the scheme is "doomed to fail" or anything like it. In fact I saw no letters that made this point, although perhaps I was looking in the wrong place.

    I appreciate that NCE has set itself up as the champion of the civil engineering industry. But wouldn't it be better if NCE was the champion of civil engineers who want to deliver value to society? (unfortunately, all too often these two things are not the same).

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