Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Your View | Losing our expertise

Istock 000005643034largecmyk crop

I refer to your Infrastructure Insight report and the “Brexit could worsen skills shortages in construction” article (New Civil Engineer, last month).

Over 30 years ago apprenticeships in construction trades and the numbers of students studying civil engineering in the UK were far higher than today. Contractors believed they had a responsibility to work with local colleges to provide practice training and on the job experience to young people, so that they could be bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers and rail workers. But the new breed of management contractors which has grown during the last 30 years pulled their funding and support from apprenticeships.

Likewise, in the last 20 years, over half of the UK’s universities have stopped teaching civil engineering. Queen Mary University London where I attended (and which had taken over King’s College’s civil engineering programme) shut its programme a few years after I completed my degree. The university explained that it was essentially a commercial company and closure was all about money. It explained that the civil engineering industry had a reputation for short term profit and was unwilling to invest in training, or research.

In a world of supply and demand, the civil engineering industry would have been forced to change its unsustainable practice of under investment in the UK. However, the European Union provided a solution: unlimited access to cheap, disposable labour. Why invest in supporting and training people in the UK, if you can get cheap labour from the depressed economies of Europe? Spain has 50% youth unemployment and many qualified engineers will work for peanuts. This is the elephant in the room.

So Sir John Armitt is fundamentally wrong as to what is at the heart of the problem. The “self-inflicted skills crisis” will not be caused by the public vote. It will be as a direct result of civil engineering companies and authorities in the UK having deliberately avoided investing in a generation of civil engineers in the UK. They can keep their heads in the sand, moan and complain about the changing world, or embrace the more international world opening up for the UK.

To be at the top of civil engineering internationally, our companies must return to investing in apprenticeships and universities. Just look at Sir James Dyson, whose company is investing £2.5M in mechanical engineering research and launching a new university. If only our industry had such visionary leaders.

Importing vital engineering  skills

Can I express my wholehearted agreement with the comments contained in the thoughtful letter from George Rosie (Your View, last month).

There is no doubt that the outcome of the Queensferry Crossing is wonderful. However, the procurement leaves me concerned and frustrated.

At school I learnt about the proud shipbuilding heritage of the local Clyde and Forth communities and those skills are certainly valid on this project.

Rose is correct to question whether today, as a nation, we are capable of delivering such mega projects from our own manufacturing base.

I find the economics doubly worrying, given that we are all aware that for every pound we spend internally, there is a reasonable rebate through taxation.

It is a rich country indeed that externalises significant procurement packages such as this and there is no doubt we are repeating the process constantly going forward.

Is it because there is a dearth of political nouse, is it a fear of being held to ransom by awkward industrial relations, or is it the general malaise of a liberal society paralysed by the sound bite criticism of an often biased press?

Personally I remain convinced our nation has the skill, but I am very concerned we now no longer hold the will.

Compromise is always our enemy and as civil engineers it is our duty to ensure we help our clients make the difficult choices and understand the benefits.

  • Chris Plant

We need a south midlands science city

Perhaps the government and local authorities should consider setting up “Science City” based on Harwell, Culham, Milton Park and Didcot as a counterweight to Milton Keynes and a rival to Silicon Fen in Cambridgeshire.

The main rail line from London to Bristol runs through the site as does the A34 leading from the M40 to the M4 – this could be up-graded to A34(M). Oxford is a short distance away, easily reached by road or rail and Oxford Airport could take pressure off Heathrow.

Such a proposal would boost the economic case for improved links between Oxford and Cambridge. Using the New Towns Act land can be bought, very quickly, by compulsory purchase order at existing use value.

Better to plan the area properly (using a New Town Development Corporation) than allow developers to cherry-pick the best bits and leave the local authorities to pick up the rest and provide the infrastructure.

Roger Ball, posted online on article headed “East west rail and road projects ‘key to unlocking growth’”

Popularity ploy

It’s a wonderful “Yes Minister” ploy to announce that you are going ahead with a really well supported scheme knowing full well that you’re going to pull the plug down the line due to “affordability issues”.

I’d laugh if it wasn’t so tragic. Halcrow took the [A303 Stonehenge tunnel] scheme through a Public Inquiry in 2002 and it was approved with minor modifications to the tunnel length.

Orders could have been produced then and it would have been built and open for the last 10 years by now. Instead, the Department for Transport decided that it was too expensive at about £700M, which was a vastly inflated figure from the ECI contractor Balfour Beatty/Costain JV in order to cover contingencies.

How the cost estimate has now got to £1.6bn is a mystery, but just goes to show how wrong (low) the cost estimate for High Speed 2 is.

  • Philip Alexander, posted online on article headed “Tunnelling solutions sought as A303 plans reach cash limit”.

A better approach to disaster recovery

The report on the Eindhoven Airport car park collapse (New Civil Engineer, last month) highlights some important technical issues. More so, the fact that New Civil Engineer was able to publish such a detailed report less than six months after the collapse also owes much to the difference between Dutch business culture and that of the UK.

Several years ago I was commissioned by insurers to investigate the failure of a structure on a large site operated by a joint venture of UK and Dutch companies. There had been no deaths or injuries but the failure shut down a critical process for the whole project, resulting in delay costing a lot of money. I managed to work out the cause of the failure and then travelled with the UK managing director to the Netherlands for a series of meetings, culminating in a meeting with all relevant parties. When presenting my findings and conclusions, I was very conscious that directly opposite me was the engineer who had designed the structure. When I finished, he asked various questions, took notes and then sat quietly. When questions from others were finished, I asked him if he wanted to ask more questions or discuss any points. I was quite taken aback by his answer: “No, I understand, your explanation, it makes sense, it is logical”.

When the drawings for the proposed remedial works arrived a short time later, it was quickly obvious that the engineer had fully understood the problem, worked out an ingenious and practical solution – and the site was back in operation soon afterwards.

The UK MD of the project and I both found the difference between that Dutch meeting and typical UK practice quite shocking. If something goes wrong, instead of arguing about who should be blamed and held liable, the Dutch focus their attention on trying to understand the problem and working out how to solve it.

  • Alasdair Beal (F),

Oroville’s flaws

I was very surprised to read the article on Oroville dam entitled (New Civil Engineer, last month). Questions remain. One question that should be asked is why was the essential drawdown infrastructure not operating at the time of the flood? And why was the “power station referred to in the diagram diasabled? Operation of these would have greatly alleviated or indeed removed the problem of elevated reservoir water levels.

There was also no mention in the article of regulatory oversight and the role of the two regulators: FERC and California State (which is also the owner which in itself creates an interesting dynamic).

But the biggest misconception that must be addressed is the issue of dam age and current standards. Regardless of age, dams are assessed against current standards and guidance. The industry does not expect 1950s performance from a 1950s dam. Periodic reviews, in the case of the United States every five years by FERC against modern standards, legally require implementation. Therefore a 1950s dam should perform adequately against today’s standards.

Other questions remain on the operation, maintenance and engineering of the compound structures. Why, for example, did the auxiliary spillway have an earth (and therefore erodible) chute crossed by a main access road? All of which was destroyed.

  • Ian Hope (F) Supervising engineer – Reservoirs Act 1975 past chair British Dam Society

Tackling the trees

While most Sheffield residents are supportive of the tree replacement programme (only 7% raised any objection in a recent survey), it is clear that a small, vocal minority remain opposed.

 What most people agree about, however, is that since starting work in 2012, Streets Ahead, the 25 year highways upgrade and maintenance contract between Amey and Sheffield City Council, has seen huge investment in the city’s roads and pavements, with 1,100km of highway and 2,300km of footway resurfaced, more than 64,600 new LED street lights installed and more than 3,200 gullies replaced.

 Replacing street trees is part of this programme. We only replace a street tree if it is dead, dying, diseased, dangerous, damaging, or discriminatory (creating difficulty for elderly, disabled and partially sighted people to use the footway). The council only decides to replace trees as a last resort in order to uphold its duty to ensure the safety of Sheffield people. A High Court judge agreed it was the council’s right to do this.

 Prior to Streets Ahead, street trees had not been actively managed. Many were removed and never replaced. Such a policy is no way to guarantee the continued health and vitality of an urban tree population which is rightly prized.

 We share people’s pride in Sheffield’s population of 4M trees. In total, around 36,000 are on the street, and of these around 6,000 will have been replaced during the last five years.

 The work we are doing now will see a new generation of young trees maturing as part of a thriving green streetscape for our children, their children and their grandchildren to enjoy.

  • James Haluch, managing director for Highways, Amey.,  In response to online article headed “Insight | Engineers wade in to Sheffield trees debate”




Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.