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New skills are needed to kick start major projects

Mark Hansford

I was down on the South Devon Link road last week. It’s a relatively modest (although big for Devon) £110M scheme that will relieve a massive bottleneck on the way to Torbay and in the process create 7,500 jobs across the region.

I won’t say much about its technical prowess now as there’s a feature to come and I’ll end up stealing my own thunder. But suffice to say it is technically excellent.

It is also a project remarkable for the persistence of Devon County Council and Torbay Council who together committed millions from their tight budgets years before any government funds were in the offing.

It was this up-front work - and a commitment to put in a total of £33M - that propelled the scheme to the top of the list when the government finally did come calling back in 2011 looking for shovel-ready projects to fund.

Devon bypass

It’s a project that’s also remarkable for the way in which the engineers behind the scheme embraced the language of the moment to sell the scheme to the wider world.

Yes, it is estimated that the 5.5km long new road will remove 95% of traffic from Kingskerswell, restoring and revitalising the heart of the local community. That’s the old-school engineering argument for a bypass. But that is not the way the project team sold it.

They sold it as a link - a way of economically linking south Devon to the rest of the UK. They produced research that indicates that every £1 invested into the construction of the bypass will produce a £9 stimulus to the south Devon economy.

They engaged with key stakeholders like the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership, the Police, healthcare services and public transport operators and got them to back the bid.

They even got environmental lobbyists engaged, if not entirely on side.

Having the ability to keep such a wide range of stakeholders on side is a great example of the kind of skills that the modern engineer needs to get valuable, vital even, infrastructure off the drawing board and out on to site. This is a scheme, after all, that was first mooted in 1951 and many generations of engineers have tried - and failed - to get it built. Modern engineers, with a clear focus on the outcomes, have made it happen.

So as we lurch ever closer to the General Election, and with future administrations seemingly prepared to spend “whatever it takes” on services like the NHS, these kind of skills are going to be in more and more demand.

Because we’ve got some challenging schemes coming up - be it the A303 tunnel near Stonehenge, the Cardiff Bay barrage (more and more important now that new nuclear at Hinkley Point is stagnating), or, dare I say it, a significant rail capacity upgrade. We need to sell them like they’ve done in South Devon. And in taking that approach, we might find out which are really worth the effort. Getting a £9 return for every £1 invested is hard to beat.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor

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