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Politicians must trust us with innovative projects

Mark Hansford

More lessons from our Continental cousins this week I’m afraid. This time we have gone a few hundred kilometres east to the Netherlands to discover how it is that the Dutch are so much better at flood resilience than we are. It’s quite revelatory.

While significant and sustained government investment in defences is naturally a major factor, the real reason lies in culture and attitudes towards grand engineering. Much like the French with high speed rail, when it comes to flood defence the Dutch are ready and willing to innovate. The government has a vision, and it’s prepared to trust its engineers when it comes to delivering it.

Take the Sand Engine, an ambitious coastal defence project centred on a 2km wide man-made peninsula designed to erode itself, while recharging beaches along the coastline. It might work; but then again, it might not.

Either way, the Dutch government has funded it, convinced that it is worth a go by its respected engineers.

It’s interesting that many of the UK flood defence experts who accompanied NCE to the Netherlands were sceptical that such a scheme could win national support here. It’s too risky. National government and its agencies are too sceptical of engineering advice to buy in to such an innovative solution, it would seem.

This issue is of course not confined to flooding; suppliers up and down the country frequently bemoan the road and rail industries for their resistance to innovation.

So why can’t we convince the powers that be to take more of a chance on us?

I suggest it has much to do with the status (or lack of) of engineers in the UK. And I am with ICE past president professor Paul Jowitt here. In Letters this week he makes the excellent point that the key to status is extolling what has been achieved and not wallowing in self-pity.

Focus on successful project delivery, he says, and the rest will follow. He’s right of course, and there is plenty of successful project delivery that we can point to. Just look at Heathrow Terminal 2 - unveiled this week after on time and on budget delivery.

We must build on that, proposing and winning support for increasingly innovative solutions. Because as the questions get harder to answer, the solutions will have to get better.

Take rail connectivity and High Speed 2. Incredibly, just 9% of you think the project has hit on the right solution as it stands. How has it got this far with so little apparent engineering support? There is clearly some hunger for some new, innovative solutions to be looked at here.

And then look at roads, and the congestion problem on the M4 around Newport. Here, as Vic Warren points out in Letters this week, a conventional bypass is back on the agenda again despite twice being binned as unbuildable. Again, can we not be cleverer?

And then look at floods. With the Met Office this week warning that dangerous flash flooding could become the norm in southern England by the end of the century, what have we got?
Some dredging (already behind schedule,
apparently) and some localised defences (but only where private match-funding can be
found to support them).

Never has there been a greater need to push for - and win - government support for some really innovative solutions.

In the words of our ICE past president, “just do it”.

» Mark Hansford is NCE’s interim editor

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