Basic truths

Think too long about the challenges facing the UK’s basic infrastructure and you could end up with a headache.

Think too long about the challenges facing the UK’s basic infrastructure — our roads, railways, water supplies and power networks — and you could end up with a headache.

While engineers are good at applying practical technology to solve specific problems, the sheer scale of the challenges confronting the nation at this level seem almost too daunting to permit a solution.

Part of the reason for this is the fact that when those more interested in practice than theory gather to discuss matters of such huge national importance, they are inevitably joined at the party by two rather raucous and unpredictable guests: politics and money.

Consider  the search for technologies that can satisfy the demands for water from the ever-growing populations of our cities. It is a basic equation that if you concentrate more people in a particular area there are certain fundamental services that will have to follow.

It doesn’t come much more fundamental than water — yet, against a background of the struggle to supply the existing population, certain areas will soon find themselves home to hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of new residents.

Here comes the politics. John Prescott’s plans to create vast swathes of extra housing in the south-east of England are designed to ease the pressure on existing housing stock and provide room for growth in the nation’s economic boom-zone.

Whatever your views on these objectives, they introduce the pressure on basic infrastructures outlined above. These people have to be provided with water, they also have to be fed, powered and given the roads and railways to transport them around.

The food we can probably leave to Tesco. As for the others, no such easy solution exists. They are to a greater or lesser extent challenges of engineering and technology, and the politicians too often seem content to assume that the engineers and technologists will always be able to deliver.

Perhaps they have been lulled into a false sense of security by the sector’s fantastic track record. More people need to travel by air… here’s a new generation of aircraft. Cars are generating too much pollution… how about a new breed of low-emissions automotive technology?

These issues of basic infrastructure are, however, of a different order of magnitude. By gearing regional policy in the way it has, the government appears to be asking for miracles.

Now miracles can happen, but they don’t tend to come cheap. Here comes the guest to the party that has the loudest voice of the lot: our old friend money. Technology can maybe deliver the services the government wants for its new mega-towns, but there’s a cost. It’s the most basic question of all. If we want to enjoy unrestricted, exponential growth in our use of the national infrastructure, are we prepared to pay?

And if we don’t think we should have to pay, maybe our political masters should take that into account when they make their choices on our behalf.

Andrew Lee, Editor, The Engineer