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Letters: Is PFI the best way to trigger infrastructure-led recovery?

Powerful opportunity

With reference to your news item on the Severn Barrage (NCE 17 November), there are several points that would benefit from some clarification.

Firstly, when comparing cost estimates from different studies, it is important that like-for-like comparisons of cost are used.

The £15.6bn estimate (which was developed by the Sustainable Development Commission in its report Turning the Tide in October 2007) does not, for example, include any allowance for risk and optimism bias, whereas £11bn of the government’s final figure of £34bn is specifically for this.

Secondly, the work that we are currently doing at Parsons Brinckerhoff is looking more at the opportunity for developing tidal power in the Severn without compromising the development of any of the future schemes shortlisted in the government study.

We are not looking at a re-working of the Severn Barrage but at a different option informed by the wide ranging findings of the recent feasibility study.

A final point on the Severn (and other long-life, high capital/low running cost projects) is that, in the medium term and thereafter, following the financing phase, the return on investment is enhanced rather than compromised by the prevailing rate of inflation and that the cost of energy falls significantly (to around £50/MWh at today’s prices for the Severn).

This contributes to lower electricity bills in the long term (years 31 to 120 of the operating life in the case of the Severn). The challenge is to monetise this long term benefit to offset the relatively high cost of energy in the financing phase.

  • Peter Kydd, (F), director of strategic consulting, Parsons Brinckerhoff, Queen Victoria House, Redland Hill, Bristol BS6 6US

A question of conduct

I refer to your report “Mega-sewer row continues” (NCE 11 November).

In all my 53 years as an ICE member I have never come across a report in the public arena where a chartered engineer makes an accusation of improper conduct against unnamed members of our Institution.

On the safe assumption that NCE has reported Professor Richard Ashley correctly I suggest that the professor’s remarks are misplaced for a number of reasons:

To state that the engineers pushing for the scheme, in defiance of the poor economic climate, were acting unprofessionally, is to condemn a very large number of our profession working on this and many other schemes.

The scheme is currently being supported by environment minister Richard Benyon, and the Environment Agency, plus a group of 15 environmental, wildlife, rivers and boating organisations under the group name of Thames Tunnel Now Coalition.

It appears that the professor is feeling sore because the Selborne Commission, of which he is a member, has not had its findings accepted. This is not a good excuse for issuing public threats against individuals.

It is relevant to the argument that the Selborne Commission has not put forward any details of its own hybrid solution. This appears to be a tactic for inserting further delay to the project.

Professor Ashley should go on record and withdraw all suggestions of unprofessional conduct against unnamed members of the ICE. The ICE should inform him that he should not be issuing such public statements.

Thames Water should get on with some haste and construct the scheme. Surely the professor must know that governments often build such schemes in poor economic times just to create jobs. The Hoover Dam, built in the mid 1930s, is the most striking example of this policy.

  • Alastair Biggart (F), alastairross@manx.net

Is PFI the best way to trigger infrastructure-led recovery?

Despite the many attempts to persuade and educate politicians about the wisdom of investing in infrastructure and the numerous different funding methods which have been attempted, actual investment remains well below engineers’ aspirations.

Perhaps we need to appeal to people’s self interest.

Reading the Evening Standard I came across an article regarding the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund, which seems to have achieved financial success, partly by making a significant investment in infrastructure.

I expect many British funds invest mostly in UK gilts which currently give a negative real rate of return, meaning holders are losing money.

Could the ICE take the lead to sell the idea of infrastructure investment to our pension funds and thereby help us doubly by improving infrastructure investment and pension fund performance?

  • David Maitland-Wood (M), 5 Savoy Close, Basildon SS16 6GG

Antony Oliver’s editorial “The public must pay for the roads they (sic) want” (NCE last week) reinforces what appears to be the commonly held view that the only way to dig ourselves out of the economic gloom in which we find ourselves, thanks to the wanton recklessness of the financial sector, is to call on the very same to take a hand in providing the very fabric of our public realm.

To enable this to happen there will of course need to be a relaxation of all the bureaucracy and public consultation which surrounds and enables infrastructure projects, including planning constraints. All very tiresome and unnecessary.

It harks back to Oliver’s call a month or two ago of “why can’t we do it like they do in Qatar?”

We need to be careful, PFI is not necessarily the panacea for our national ills. The government does have the funds to provide decent infrastructure, it just needs to sort out its priorities. It also has the obligation to preserve our democracy and protect the environment.

It should be encouraged to do these things without the need for toll roads and over reliance on an unreliable private sector.

  • Michael Robinson, Mill House, North Creake, Norfolk NR21 9LQ

Finding an affordable solution

Your reporting of my comments about the tunnel proposals and specifically about unprofessional conduct needs some clarification (NCE 10 November).

I was not at this stage trying to point to individuals, rather to the way in which civil engineers need to ensure that they firstly serve the needs of society before the immediate client.

I raised doubts about the way in which the tunnel has been promoted above all other solutions within this context, wondering if there may at some point be a case to be answered, hence “could be in breach..” is appropriate.

I still maintain that the tunnel is not the best solution for society especially in terms of affordability and value for money for the poorest in our society. Where do we as civil engineers stand on this bigger question?

  • Richard Ashley, University of Sheffield, Pennine Water Group, department of civil and structural engineering, r.ashley@sheffield.ac.uk

Merger talk

When Tom Foulkes talks about merging the institutions (NCE 17 November) he says “not enough of our members bought into the idea”. But our members have not been asked in a ballot.

I suggest that the next time there is a need for a ballot, for instance about subscriptions, we can add the simple question: merge? Yes or no?

It will happen anyway eventually if only for economic reasons, so the sooner we start the better. Together we can achieve more at lower cost, which is what I think engineering is all about.

  • Robert Freer (F), rfreer.dulwich@virgin.net

Watt’s currency commemoration is not the first

I greatly enjoyed your references to James Watt and Matthew Boulton on the latest £50 note (NCE 10 November) but noted there was no mention of the first civil engineer to appear on our currency.

The benign visage of George Stephenson (Darlington/Stockton Railway 1825) appeared on the earlier £5
note until superseded by Elizabeth Fry.

One suspects other long-retired members may have shared similar thoughts − especially as our group tends to be more familiar with £5 than £50 notes.Perhaps we shall see Isambard Kingdom Brunel anon.

  • David Turner (Ret M), County Durham, ddtwt@btinternet.com

Letters to the editor

NCE welcomes letters from readers.

We attempt to print as many as possible, which means letters longer than 200 words are likely to be condensed.

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