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What is the ethical approach to runaway population growth?

On 31 October the United Nations marked the new global population count at 7bn. It is no exaggeration to say that without civil engineers this total would never have been reached.

Road networks, airports and ports and the infrastructure of distribution have made feeding the population easier and efforts to explore more natural resources such as oil, gas and water have fed the appetite of billions.

However, it is worth considering which comes first - the growth or the ability to grow? Have we met demand, or created it?

Sustainability is a function of two things: consumption and population. Huge efforts are going into reducing consumption but with the population set to climb past 9bn by around 2040, and more and more people moving into cities these efforts could be negated.

I believe the ICE has a responsibility to consider its position. Is it ethical to continue to create infrastructure that enables long term unsustainable population growth? Is it possible to distinguish between those projects that enhance the lives of the existing population and those that fuel increased consumption and population growth? What can civil engineers do about demand for projects that are inherently unsustainable?

These are questions that are too big to ignore. As a global organisation it is imperative that the ICE has a position on this issue. We cannot simply continue to build whatever we are asked to build without considering the consequences.

» Matt Humphrey (M),


Follow Brazil on drainage

I must take issue with Alvin Barber (NCE 13 October) over his defence of the British drainage sector and its willingness to innovate.

True, when it comes to the introduction of new materials and construction techniques, many of these have been adopted, but this most certainly does not apply to the design of drainage, which is still firmly rooted in the past.

No other branch of ­engineering that I am aware of is still so dependent on Victorian rules of thumb for design. While there may have been the odd tweak here and there over the years, it is in Brazil where the innovative engineers are to be found.

To serve the needs of the urban poor, the basis of design was re-examined from first principles and a far more economical system known as “condominial sewerage” was developed.

The water company serving the Federal District commented that the only possible reason for using conventional design was if you actually wanted to waste money.

By contrast in the UK, the report Design of Sewers to Control Sediment Problems, which was published by Ciria in 1996, seems to have had no impact whatsoever on design practice, despite the enormous problems caused by the deposition of sediment in sewers.

It could be argued that we are sufficiently rich to waste money on inefficiently designed drainage, but the change from square, to round, and back to square manholes shows that ingenuity is being applied to reducing costs.

What worries me though is the lack of interest in increasing the efficiency of the basic hydraulic design.

» Jeff Broome, 20 ­Boulderclough, Sowerby Bridge, W Yorks HX6 1NQ

Let’s not get stuck in the past

It’s disappointing that so many letters have derided the range of responsibilities that Tendring Council have assigned to their head of public experience post. While the post title may be unusual, the duties are not.

In recent years many councils have placed all of their technical functions into a single directorate. With shrinking budgets and outsourced service delivery it demonstrates strategic thinking and value for money.

If we are serious about delivering more for less, then we need to encourage an ending of departmental silos and a more joined-up approach to service planning.

Perhaps one reason for the derision is that the correspondents are not up to the challenge and it explains why so few engineers achieve key management positions and instead remain stuck in a purely technical role.

» Ian Jenkinson, Newcastle-under-Lyme, chair of the Editorial Advisory Panel, Municipal Engineer,


Land value tax is naive

I refer to the letter published in last week’s NCE on land value tax boosting infrastructure spending.

While I welcome the debate on development and land values, I am staggered at the naivety of the proposal, not least that the introduction of a land value tax will do anything to stimulate the government to invest in infrastructure, deter speculation in the property market or encourage the development of unused and vacant land.
Infrastructure is at the heart of development and our economy. If we want to help, I think it a far higher priority for members to engage with policy such as the Localism Bill, the emerging National Planning Policy Framework and the Community Infrastructure Levy.

Thankfully, this is what I see the Institution is doing.

» David Kavanagh (M), EA Strategic Land, 33 Ely Place, London EC1N 6TD

Northolt offers a solution to Heathrow woes

Ways of increasing London’s hub airport capacity have been reported in NCE recently. The cheapest, a Heathrow-Gatwick rail link, would cost in excess of £5bn, and would bring only limited benefits.

I suggest that use of Northolt airport to enhance Heathrow’s capacity should be seriously considered.
Departing passengers transferring from international flights could check-in at Heathrow Terminal 1 and then be taken from the apron by coach to Northolt, right up to the aircraft steps, a 25-minute journey. Non-transferring passengers would make their own way to Northolt.

This idea was considered in the 1990s but turned down, partly because some of the flight paths for the existing main runway at Northolt would clash with those for Heathrow.

But surely with today’s technology such a clash could be avoided if civilian flights to and from Northolt were confined to domestic flights to and from Scotland and the north of England.
If the Northolt take-off flight path were a straight 6km WSW from the end of the runway, then a transition into a 6km-radius right turn, it would still be, at its nearest, at least 4km clear of the almost due west flight path from Heathrow’s north runway.

Eight civilian movements per hour at Northolt (four take-offs and four landings) would increase flight capacity of the Heathrow hub by about 10%.

Only minor improvements would be needed at Northolt; the cost would be trivial compared with other London hub airport development options.

» David Deriaz (M),


Foreign loopholes?

When membership of the ICE is achieved it is, generally, only after a thorough and rigorous process of review of educational qualifications, experience and capability via reports, training schemes, interview and examination all supported by references from Members and Fellows of the Institution. This is only correct and proper.
However, I have recently encountered what appears to be a loophole in this whole process.

It would appear that those wishing to achieve Chartered status by way of membership of a foreign engineering body need only write a report and quote their membership of their national engineering body.

They are not required to provide references nor are they required to attend a professional interview. This is surely an oversight on the part of the Institution and needs to be brought into line with other methods of membership route.

» Michael Grounsell (M), michael.grounsell@­

Falklands’ new airport really was a marvel

Falklands airport

I was disappointed to read in Antony Oliver’s report of his meeting with our President (NCE 20 October), that Peter Hansford said: “What impressed me about Shanghai was how they can build an airport within three years of saying ‘let’s build an airport’.”

If our president cannot promote the work of the British construction industry who will?

In 1982 when I was working with the Property Services Agency (PSA), a new airport was needed to defend the recently reconquered Falkland Islands after the conflict earlier in the year. The Royal Engineers identified the site at Mount Pleasant and it was then left to us to provide the airfield.

Under the direction of the late Dermot Boylan, and in close cooperation with the Ministry of Defence Directors of Quartering, we started in September 1982.

The work was designed by PSA staff and bid for by consortia of British contractors, the contract being won by the Laing, Mowlem, ARC consortium. By late summer of 1983 work on site had begun, and the airfield came into use in March 1985, less than the three years he admired in China.

Unlike the Chinese airfield, which was built on the edge of a very large city with an established construction industry, Mount Pleasant was built about 13,000km from home, on an oceanic island. The site was about 50km from Stanley, the nearest source of supplies of any kind, initially reached on unsurfaced roads, in a country with only a basic engineering infrastructure.

We had to start from scratch by identifying sources for water, sand and stone, and build a new “port” at Swan Inlet 10km south of the site before work could start. Apart from the normal construction considerations we had to deal with other unique problems like how to get a workforce of about 1,400 in a country whose total population was about 1,600, without wrecking the economy.

I suggest that getting this into operation in two years and about eight months is rather more impressive than the Chinese effort and was done entirely using the British construction industry.

I have never been able to understand why the project was practically totally ignored by the British media, which is probably why Hansford was unaware of it.
» JT Fulton, (F) 3 Martello Park, Poole BH13 7BA

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