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Letters: Should the Highways Agency set a cost cutting example?

Should the Highways Agency set a cost cutting example?

Highways agency


As a former Highways Agency employee, I read with some interest Graham Dalton’s comments on what he expects from consultants and contractors in the drive for savings and was struck by the apparent double standards that were being applied (NCE 22 September).

A cursory examination of the present trunk road network would suggest that with a small amount of detrunking, amalgamation of areas and office closures that considerable savings could be made by the Agency.

This would be in much the same way as consultants have been forced to close offices to make the savings demanded by the Agency.

With regard to qualified staff, when I joined the Department for Transport from a sister organisation in 1990 there was a booklet available which ran to many pages, listing all the engineers employed and their qualifications. I wonder how many pages such a booklet would run to now?

To make matters even worse the Agency is at present advertising for a director of major projects with the words: “While not absolutely necessary, you’ll ideally have an engineering or project management qualification” (NCE 29 September).

So while Graham Dalton complains that suppliers might save money by using less experienced staff and de-skilling the UK supply chain, it would appear that a “gifted amateur” would be considered to head up the major projects directorate.

  • Jim Brown ( M ),

Supergrid has benefits

It is disappointing that a member of the ICE can promote such an ill-informed view on energy as that from Peter Wilson (NCE 29 September).

He complains that the European Supergrid is a “pipe dream” having potential but unstated “astronomical costs” while arguing for the discovery of some completely unknown generation system which will be “much cheaper and 100% available”.

Having worked in nuclear and renewable energy for many years, it is obvious that all possible sources of sustainable electricity generation have been, and are being, investigated by good engineers and scientists from all disciplines and there is as yet no panacea for cheap energy.

The foreseeable future is of a balance between all forms of generation subject to compromises between costs and effects.

The electricity supergrid is a reality and there are already high voltage links between Britain, Ireland, France and the Netherlands with significant plans for extensions to Iceland for geothermal, Norway for hydro and southern Europe for solar energy.

The supergrid already provides balancing services to minimise our cyclic daily electricity demand which is effectively an equivalent to the magic but elusive energy storage that some people wish for.

In the face of rising costs and demand worldwide, mostly based on finite fossil fuel resources, engineers will need to develop and apply their knowledge of energy to influence the design and construction of practical and sustainable solutions.

  • Peter Hinson (M), EMP-2 Consultants,

Merge engineers’ bodies

I read with interest and support the editorial comment on the purchase of Halcrow by CH2M Hill. The title had it right − “consolidation is inevitable in the world of the one stop shop” (Comment, last week).

So, while many of the organisations which employ professional engineers have for numerous reasons had to change and adapt to survive, our own institutions have, however, sadly failed to recognise the arrival of the one stop shop world.

Despite a number of attempts to rationalise the number of engineering institutions over the years we, regrettably, remain a fragmented profession much as created by the Victorians. The reasons why are, in my opinion, rooted in self-serving tribalism.

If we had been driven by the same market forces as the organisations which employ us we would most likely have:

  • A single organisation which represents all professional engineers in all educational, political and economic aspects
  • Only one office in London
  • A campus of engineering excellence somewhere central to the whole of the UK
  • A slimmer administration
  • Less inflated fees
  • A real presence in the “one shop world”

Sadly vested interest will continue to prevent any change.

  • JR Volk, (Member Institution of Mechanical Engineers),

A question of shape

Anyone who thinks the concept of square manholes referred to in your “Dutch Connection” article is “quite alien within these shores” must be very much younger than me (NCE 22 September).

When I started working on drainage in the 1970s, manholes were generally square and built of brick, but were being rapidly superseded by precast concrete which is of course best suited to producing circular objects. So manholes became round.

It is wrong to claim that “prefabricated concrete elements are a novelty”, when the only insitu concrete elements were the bases.

On most drainage contracts there is a variety of pipe sizes and angles of benching, making insitu concrete the ideal material for forming the base. For house drainage, however, the standardisation of pipe sizes has made the use of preformed multi-angle bases in plastic universal.

Of course a precast manhole base will be suitable where all pipes are the same diameter and there are no junctions, but those jobs are the minority.

Please don’t insult British industry by claiming a “dogged adherence to the tried and tested”. We are as good as any at developing and using the best method for the job.

  • Alvin Barber (M),

Sign of the times

I note with interest Ian Kitching’s letter (NCE 29 September). I fully agree with his comment [about the failure to promptly reinstate road marking after road works].

What seems to be in short supply are human beings able to remove the signs once the lining is complete. Or is this just a problem in the north east of England and the borders of Scotland?

  • John A McConway (M)

Empty roads promises

I agree with Robert Brewerton’s comments regarding the future for Britain’s transport infrastructure, with particular reference to the national highway system (Letters last week).

I have been examining the recent history of the transport policies and programmes. Looking back over the past two decades − starting with “Roads for Prosperity” produced by the Conservative Government in 1989 − every year or two a secretary of state will produce a “new” programme of major transport infrastructure projects.

These all promise significantly increased expenditure, with lists of trunk road schemes expected to be started within the following few years. Within two or three years, with expenditure cuts, a new announcement will be made, promising better news for the future; in turn the sums available and hence the number of schemes being progressed will fall.

Philip Hammond, the present transport secretary, made at least two announcements last year cancelling or postponing schemes.

The reason for this is that the programme is an easy target for making cuts, as compared with ongoing running costs of expenditure such as the National Health Service.

Governments have given the go-ahead to a number of major public transport investments, including recently Crossrail and the previous Labour government cleared the funding for the major extensions to the Manchester Light Rail System.

Industry has called for improvements to the congested highway system as a necessary way to give both economic benefits and provide employment - the government must be pressed on this.

  • Philip L Sulley (M), Windmill House, Vicarage Road, Yalding, Maidstone, Kent ME18 6DW

Competition will increase visual impact of pylons

Regarding your report on the competition to improve the appearance of electricity pylons (NCE 29 September), aren’t we on the wrong tack here?

Most people want to make tracks of wires and pylons invisible by putting them underground.

For above ground necessities the impact reduces by choosing the supports to be see- through, and that has traditionally and successfully been done with lattice towers.

At a distance the small section members of the lattice appear to lose mass and the landscape beyond increasingly predominates. Examine any photograph of a track of lattice pylons relative to the solid. All the competition does is make towers more visible.

  • Geoffrey White,

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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