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Planning, spending, reassuring

Last week politicians and civil engineers came face to face at Civils 2008 with infrastructure investment top of the agenda. NCE was there to capture the mood. Mark Hansford reports.

Civil engineers rarely get the opportunity to rub shoulders with politicians, opinion formers, decision makers and the industry’s spenders, so when they do its best to make the most of it. Which is why thousands poured through the doors of London’s Earls Court last week, aiming to get the ear of government officials, shadow ministers and major clients, and aiming to put themselves at the heart of debate.

As ICE president Jean Venables said, civil engineers must get to the heart of infrastructure policy making. Chief amongst Venables’ concerns was reconciling the assumed need for a third runway at Heathrow Airport with the equally – or, some might argue, more pressing – need to get on top of climate change. "Engineers need to get at the heart of infrastructure policy making, and particularly those policies that are going to make a real impact on climate change, and especially meeting carbon dioxide targets," she said. "We have got to urgently change the way we look at transport. We have got to look at transport policy as a whole and that means integrating airports with rail and roads. "I believe the high speed rail option [of developing routes between London and the north] is the most attractive one."

Venables was backed by shadow transport secretary Teresa Villiers who used Civils to seek cross-party consensus for pushing through high speed rail plans. Villiers explained her ambitious plans to build a new high speed rail line from London to the north, via a Heathrow hub with links to the existing rail network. "There is a handicap for taking forward major improvements, because the timescale for transport improvements is longer then the 4-5 year time horizon that most politicians have to deal with," she told delegates. "I think it is in the national interest to get all political parties backing transport improvements like high speed rail. If it means some of the distinctions between us are blurred come the election, then I am happy with that. The important thing is to lead the debate and get this thing built because it will have such benefit for the country as a whole."

Villiers said again that the Conservatives would maintain their opposition to a third runway at Heathrow airport. "In parliament [transport secretary] Geoff Hoon was adamant he would press ahead with that, so there will be a distinct difference there," she said. Villiers said the economic downturn meant that it was important not to increase borrowing and ensure projects were aff ordable. "We will take a fiscally responsible approach to public spending," she said, adding that party commitments to high speed rail and Crossrail were aff ordable.

Villiers’ proposals met with opposition from Professor of economic history at the London School of Economics Dr Tim Leunig. He said that Conservative proposals to build new high speed rail lines are based on "funny money", and the numbers did not add up. Leunig said high speed rail projects were "very expensive". "It is notable that the Conservative have only funny money [to fund it], and will use the existing rail budget.

"I think we should only take politicians’ spending proposals seriously when they actually have some money on which they can write the cheque. Leunig said the idea made sense only when there were large numbers of people travelling on a particular line. He said building lines from London to Manchester was "conceivable", but that creating large numbers of lines was not.

But Civils was about more than just an infrastructure debate. It was about reassurance – reassurance that infrastructure spending will survive the economic downturn. At Cross London Rail Links managing director Keith Berryman’s packed presentation on delivering Crossrail on Wednesday afternoon, there was a tangible feeling of desperation to hear some good news. And good news there was – from the off.

Steven Norris, Jarvis chairman, Transport for London (TfL) board member and twice London mayoral candidate opened Civils 2008 with a gloom-busting performance to reassure consultants and contractors about future workload.

"There is an enormous amount of civils works still happening in London, not least because we’ve got an absolute mountain of it in improving and renewing our railways," said Norris, citing the continued upgrade of the Tube, Thameslink, the East London Line and "the big one", Crossrail.

"There is a lot going on and TfL will be supervising about the most exciting civils programme in Europe," he said. Norris, a former transport minister, added that he was more confident of Crossrail being delivered now than at any time in the past. And there was much more good news.

BAA’s head of Heathrow East Phil Wilbraham set out the challenge of transforming Heathrow Terminals 1 and 2 into a terminal for the 21st century. Thames Water director of major projects Steve Walker added his own company’s resourcing plans and outlook for the future to the mix.

From outside London, Manchester City Council’s chief executive Sir Howard Berstein and the council’s leader Sir Richard Leese set out what the £3bn raised from congestion charging and its Transport Innovation Fund bid will do for the north west. "It is estimated that the £3bn will create 30,000 jobs and 4,000 in construction. That will make a huge diff erence to the economy of Greater Manchester," said Leese.

In energy, Magnox South chief engineer Steve Hodson gave an insight into spending plans and the skills needed to help him spend it. Eon UK Generation MD Jim Lightfoot added to the good news with his company’s energy plans. Better still, city think tank Zyen Group executive chairman Michael Mainelli said that investors recognised that now is a crucial time to be investing in the energy sector. But he added that they may wish to spread their risk across a range of technologies. "In the City we have a portfolio approach to life," said Mainelli. "You are betting on the market, betting on these technologies, and only an idiot backs one technology as the winner." Mainelli added that of all the renewable technologies, solar power was actually proving most popular with City investors.

Not everyone wanted to spend, however. Carbon Trust chief executive Tom Delay said carbon emissions could be cut more quickly and efficiently through energy efficiency. "Nuclear, renewables and carbon capture storage all have a part to play [in cutting carbon] but we shouldn’t assume they are the only solutions," said Delay. Environmental campaigner Tony Juniper added weight to the green argument and Charles Secrett, advisor on climate change, environment and sustainable development called for countries to work together to share energy supplies to combat climate change.

NCE was out in force at Civils 2008 catching the industry’s biggest names on camera
● Theresa Villiers, shadow transport secretary calls for cross-party support for high speed rail
● Tony Juniper Ex- Friends of the Earth director tells civil engineers they could be in the vanguard of a green boom
● Steve Hodson Magnox South chief engineer on the skills challenges facing the nuclear sector
● Tim Leunig and Jim Steer LSE professor of economic history and founder of high speed rail pressure group Greenguage21 debate high speed rail
● Tom Delay Carbon Trust chief executive on the energy effi ciency challenge
● Michael Mainelli Financial think-tank Zyen Group’s executive chairman on why investing in energy projects is good
● Charles Secrett Former climate change advisor to the mayor of London backs plans for a pan-EU and Africa super-grid
● Sir Terry Farrell Leading architect sets the record straight on Eco-Towns and much more
● Jean Venables ICE president on getting engineers at the heart of infrastructure policy making and Heathrow
● Steven Norris Transport for London board member’s gloom-busting performance to reassure civils consultants and contractors that future workloads are secure
● Will Goode Construction Resale MD on why government still must do more on waste management
● Steve Walker Thames Water major projects director on his company’s resourcing plans and outlook
● Jim Lightfoot Eon UK Generation MD on energy challenges and opportunities
● Phil Wilbraham BAA Heathrow East programme director sets out the challenge of transforming Heathrow Terminals 1 and 2 into a terminal for the 21st century

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