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Letters: Political expediency is at odds with thoughtful engineering

Antony Oliver asks why it is that, despite reports and recommendations calling for action to mitigate flood threats, so little has changed (NCE 29 November). Surely a large part of the answer is because governments are only elected for five years, and councillors for even less.


Forward thinking: Victorian engineers such as Joseph Bazalgette would have been at odds with today’s politicians

Politicians want to be popular, and most are very keenly focused on being re-elected. Those who can lower taxes, spend the least, or promise to, are elected.

Those who suggest more public money should be spent are pilloried in the popular press and don’t win many votes. If just a few years pass without serious flooding our politicians begin to think it’s not a problem they need to worry about.

Infrastructure investment requires long term planning and spending today for the benefit of future generations.

Our democratic system just isn’t conducive to long term planning and futureproofing.

By our very nature, we as engineers are inclined to think long term and warn of possible problems, but that means most of us don’t get into positions of power in a world where cheap instant solutions are demanded.

Projects which are fortunate enough to be built are usually subject to endless scrutiny and so called “value engineering”, shaving every possible penny off the price, without thought to longevity.

If the Victorians hadn’t built in what we today call “over engineering”, we would be paying much more today (in both sustainability and cost terms) rebuilding all those assets which are still serving us so well.

As members of this noble profession, we must look for ways to reverse these trends, or future generations will pay a heavy price.

  • Neil Besley (M),


How to deal with dam safety

Bravo to the Defra minister (NCE 6 December) for deciding not to implement in full the reservoir safety schedule of the Floods & Water Management Act 2010.

The British Dam Society should not be drawn into criticism at this late stage. It and the Institution of Civil Engineers’ Reservoirs Committee advised on and were consulted about the new legislation. Sir Michael Pitt was promised risk-based legislation, but the new law is not based on risk.

What is called a “high risk” reservoir is actually a high consequence reservoir, defi ned as any reservoir that would kill at least one person if it failed. Without using risk assessment and estimating the probability of failure and the probability of loss of life, it is difficult to identify reservoirs that are definitely not “high risk” ones.

More importantly, whether a dam is adequately safe, and would not fail and cause loss of life other than in the most extreme of circumstances, cannot be estimated without using quantitative risk assessment.

In view of these fundamental shortcomings, can I suggest to the minister that for the present no aspects of the new law be implemented, and no changes be made to the existing Act, other than to transfer the responsibility for its enforcement to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE)?

I suggest the HSE because reservoir safety is a matter of public safety, not an environmental Defra matter. The HSE understands public safety. It is renowned amongst the international community of dam safety engineers for its rational advice. A particular strength is on the vexed issue of the level of risk that those living in floodways downstream of reservoirs should bear in order that we can all enjoy the benefits that reservoirs bring.

The HSE could guide engineers into making risk assessments of all reservoirs, of any volume, so that in due course the minister can reliably determine which do or do not need special statutory attention from Panel engineers.

  • Rod Bridle (F),

The true start date of HS1

As the client manager tunnels on what was the CTRL project, now HS1, a couple of important corrections to your Memorable Moments article on HS1 (NCE 8 November).

The high speed service commenced on 14 November 2007 not 2009, on time and within budget.

The scale of the tunnelling work was indeed huge, the route from Rainham to St Pancras was 17.5 route kilometres of twin tunnels therefore 35km was driven not 12.2km.

  • Haydn Davies (M ret)

Go to Luton, not Moscow

If Mark Hansford wished to see a stadium with one side entirely formed of executive boxes, he did not need to visit Spartak Moscow’s stadium (NCE 6 December). The nearly 10,000 capacity Kenilworth Road (Luton Town FC) has had this arrangement for many years.

In addition, if he wished to see a stadium that also provides no heating and minimal other services, he could have sampled the away fans’ facilities at the 9,000 capacity Bootham Crescent (York City FC).

  • John Dolan (M),

Sign up to support RedR

As a supporter of RedR please can I bring to the attention of readers a web browser add-on called Give as you Live that will allow RedR to benefit from purchases made from many online stores.

The beauty of this scheme is that it doesn’t cost the purchaser anything. All you have to do is download the add-on from, install it, choose RedR as your charity and make your purchases.

The online store then makes a typical donation of 1%-2% to your nominated charity.

Of course, you could nominate another charity such as WaterAid, or even swap between two or more if you wish.

It is a pity that the Christmas spending spree has been missed but if all readers use this for their on-line purchases and get their friends to join also then RedR or other charities will get an important cash flow to support their work.

  • Fraser Smith,

A Champion of the sciences

I was delighted to read Ewart Parkinson’s letter with the title “Bravo for backing better training” (NCE, 29 November) and thrilled to hear that the ICE President himself supports better training for young people.

At last, someone had the courage to remind academics and practitioners of the importance of mathematics and physics related subjects in engineering courses.

I am not suggesting that learning communication, presentation and other soft skills is a bad idea; quite the reverse.

I am saying that it is tempting for some to be carried away and confuse the importance and priority in sciences and engineering and masquerade the above courses with these skills. Here, skills taught in class can be no more than an off -putting activity, giving the illusion of learning. A great deal of lectures/ seminars today is mere activity camouflaged as engineering learning.

I used to regard group work as a valuable tool for sharing and improving engineering understanding largely due to the motivating dialogue that can be created among those involved.

However, I have begun to question the extent to which it leads to significant learning.

This is because of the introduction of a series of different skill-related objectives most of which are not directly related to the subject they represent.

Skills like the aforementioned, are part of the development of a modern engineer and should be mentioned in due course, but they should not be allowed to surpass other, more important elements in engineering education.

  • John N Karadelis,

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