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Open our minds to more adventurous engineering

Engineering can throws up novel ideas here, but compared to the grand schemes underway in the Middle East, we are rather tame and have a lot to learn, says NCE's editor, Antony Oliver

Having just spent a couple of days at the Arabian World Construction Summit in Abu Dhabi, Boris Johnson's plan to move Heathrow Airport to a new man-made island in the Thames Estuary doesn't seem so mad.

It won't happen, of course. But forget that similar ideas have been regularly floated and dismissed over the last 40 years – the real truth is that nobody politically in the UK has the balls to do something that radical.

It's just a little bit too dramatic for the UK. Just a little bit too politically risky and too likely to upset the status quo. Charging £25 to drive into the capital is one thing – moving the airport infrastructure is a whole new level of political daring.

I'm not saying it is a good idea to abandon Heathrow. Yes it's busy, but for all its downsides, the airport can provide good access to and from the capital – as I found this week.

And once Terminal 5 opens in March plus the £3.5bn of terminal infrastructure upgrading planned over the next five years, we should start to see significant improvement in usability (and traffic volumes).

Besides, while the focus of negative attention is always on the beleaguered residents of west London, don't forget that a huge amount of business and infrastructure is now established in and around the M4 corridor specifically to be close to Heathrow.

My point is simply meant as a criticism of our continued failure in the UK to even dream up decent infrastructure, let alone deliver it. London will certainly be able to bumble along with the expanded Heathrow and improved Tube but imagine what a few more Crossrails and Thameslinks could do for the economy.

And it's not just about London. The vision hiatus is nationwide. Why isn't there a high speed rail network being planned across the UK? Why aren't we developing underground personal rapid transport systems for our cities? Why aren't we driving forward with zero carbon urban design and eco-cities?

It is possible. In fact, in the Gulf it is being planned and will be built within a decade.

OK, the Gulf states have the advantage of some lucrative natural resources generating multibillion dollar surpluses every year. But it is not, as the summit heard, just the extravagant folly of oil revenue. This really is about the engineering of nation building.

So yes there will be some serious resource, inflation and basic infrastructure issues to overcome as the Gulf boom overheats. And with China and India now also heavily involved in their own nation building, the challenge will only increase.

But what will not stop is the belief by leaders that having and pursuing a national vision is a good thing. We can learn something here.

- Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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