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Sustainable projects

DEBATE: Following the long awaited governmental approval of the controversial Heathrow Terminal 5, more protest is expected over plans to build a new super-port at Dibden Bay, Southampton. This week we ask: Major civil engineering projects are by their ve

Yes Charles Ainger, visiting professor for engineering design for sustainable development, Cambridge University Eng Dept.

Decision making on major infrastructure projects should be based on a balance between the three sustainable development aspects - social, environmental and economic - not subject to a 'veto' from one angle.

Because large projects have a strong potential for both environmental and local social damage, their justification criteria needs to be robust. Here are some tests for sustainability, before one should say 'yes'.

First, it should serve a real regional or local community need, not just a private commercial interest.

Second, a major new project is not the sustainable solution if that need could be met in a different way; or by making existing infrastructure more productive;

or by a combination of a number of smaller projects. Any of these is likely to be less damaging, and should be tried first.

If these two tests are passed, then the detailed plan needs to meet further environmental and social tests. It should provide a net environmental gain: any losses should be more than made up for by the creation of additional environmental assets - for example, wetland areas, or wildlife corridors (we cannot 'engineer' the detailed biodiversity content or wildlife use of such assets, but we can provide the potential for nature to use).

And, in social terms, it should compensate any local community 'losers' for their contribution to the greater need - perhaps by including the community in project ownership, or by extra cash compensation payments.

The UK government is re-casting our planning inquiry system to deliver a faster and less costly approach. It might consider the approach I describe - in which a major project has first to be justified as the sustainable solution, and then requires net environmental and local social gain to be incorporated in plans - perhaps by requiring these interests to be represented by independent experts funded through the project.

No Tony Juniper, director designate, Friends of the Earth From the Ilisu Dam to the Newbury Bypass and from Sellafield to Dibden Bay, it seems that civil engineering firms are forever at the frontline of criticism from environmental organisations.

These firms' quest to boost economic growth, it seems, knows no bounds - roads, ports, dams, runways and giant new shopping malls, we are told, are the keys to prosperity, the source of future stability and indeed the salvation of the environment too. Almost no claim is too grand for the engineer's vision of world where nature is bound in concrete and milked for as much cash as it can yield. And it seems that no ecological price is too high.

The fifth terminal at Heathrow will facilitate the continuing rapid expansion of air transport, and in so doing not only ravenously consume land, but contribute to the rapid and dangerous changes taking place in the climate. The proposed Dibden Bay container terminal will swallow the last green space on the shores of Southampton Water, while the new Mixed Oxide fuel plant at Sellafield will contribute to a nuclear waste legacy that will pose a hazard to people for unimaginable time spans. Civil engineers enthusiastically assisted in all cases.

If the Earth is to survive the ravages that will be unleashed on it by the 10 billion people who will rely on its air, water, soils and biodiversity in the middle of this century, then those who shape the process of development must drastically change their approach.

Ecological limits are real, so are the gross inequalities that arise from developments often justified in the name of the poor, but mostly benefiting the already wealthy. These trends must be addressed in policies and practice soon if we are to avoid the worst of the ecological and related social problems that lie ahead.

Are there some new civil engineers ready to rise to that challenge - or are there only old civil engineers with different public relations?

The facts

A public inquiry into the Dibden Bay development kicked off last week. Port operator Associated British Ports plans to develop 360ha of mudflats and wetlands designated as sites of special scientific interest into a deep water container port capable of handling the largest 350m long, 4.3m draft container ships (NCE last week).

Last month, the government finally gave the go-ahead to Heathrow Terminal 5 after the longest and most expensive public inquiry ever (NCE 22 November).

As a direct consequence of the Heathrow inquiry, the government is poised to release a Green Paper on planning which is expected to streamline planning procedures for schemes in the 'national interest' (NCE last week).

Contractor Balfour Beatty last month pulled out of Turkey's highly controversial Ilisu Dam project, after it saw no solution to the commercial, environmental and social obstacles that have dogged the scheme (NCE 15 November).

Debate on the environment will be continued at Civils 2002. Find out more on (020) 7505 6644

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