Why do we invest in infrastructure? Last week I was lucky enough to experience the reason first hand - with a tour through the now nearly complete Lee Tunnel in east London. It is instantly striking.
The tunnel will capture 16M.t of untreated sewage that is currently dumped into the River Thames via the River Lee each year at London’s largest combined sewer overflow (CSO) in Abbey Mills. It will transfer it instead to Beckton sewage treatment works.
Costing a touch over £700M, it is Thames Water’s biggest engineering project to date. And standing in it, more than 80m underground, what struck me was the scale of it - the 7.2m diameter tunnel is the width of three London buses and runs for 6.9km. Picturing that tunnel, stretching as far as the eye can see in either direction, running full of untreated sewage that would otherwise be rushing into the Thames, hammers-home the size of the problem being solved here.
This is just phase one of Thames Water’s strategy to completely clean up the capital’s river, with the mega- £4.1bn Thames Tunnel designed to connect in to the Lee Tunnel and deal with many of the remaining CSOs.
It’s clearly a vital project. But these vital projects aren’t necessarily Thames-scale. As we showcase in NCE this week, Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water is tackling a similar problem in Llanelli with Britain’s first retrofitted sustainable urban drainage scheme. It’s equally incredible in its own right.
Both schemes admirably demonstrate the engineering ingenuity being applied by engineers up and down the country on projects big and small - all in the name of improving quality of life and driving economic growth.
So, as we lurch ever closer to General Election fever - how do we get the message across to those that matter - the politicians?
The ICE is making a big effort here, this week launching a manifesto aimed squarely at demonstrating the absolute need for continued long term investment in infrastructure across all sectors.
The ICE’s manifesto urges all political parties to express support for Sir John Armitt’s plan for an independent Infrastructure Commission which would set priorities and hold politicians to account on delivery. It is a plan that is firmly supported by NCE too.
Labour (as commissioner of Armitt’s report) has already pledged to make it a reality should it get elected. Indeed, I can vouch for Labour’s interest in infrastructure right now - scheduled to follow me down the Lee tunnel was none other than the shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle.
And that is great news. If Labour is showing clear interest in infrastructure, then pressure will be on the other main parties to follow suit. And that pressure is needed, as the next Parliament must make big decisions about High Speed 2 and airport expansion, to name just two key issues.
The ICE is working hard to keep infrastructure high on the agenda, and NCE is too. But you can play your part too. First by continuing to deliver incredible things.
And then by celebrating them; showing them off; letting the world know why we exist. Because when we do that, the reasons for investing are obvious.
- Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor