System check

The old rhyme that ends ‘and all for want of a horseshoe nail’ is a cautionary tale of how failing to keep an eye on the details can set off a chain of consequences that ends in catastrophe.

It sprang to mind when reading a report by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) on the state of the UK’s critical national infrastructure, which concluded that large sections of our key utilities are dangerously vulnerable to breakdown, sabotage or other disaster.

Like a row of dominoes, warns the ICE, once one falls, the others could follow and, before long, the kingdom, if not exactly lost, would be in a pretty sorry state.

In fact, one of the interesting things about the report is how few examples of major infrastructure meltdowns are available by way of illustration. In a society of 60 million people that is as complex as the UK in 2009, it is arguably a wonder that the lights stay on most of the time and that the water is highly unlikely to make you ill.

The examples that the ICE does come up with, however — 350,000 left without water for weeks, mass blackouts as a result of multiple power station failures — are hair-raising enough to merit serious consideration.

One of the claims the report makes is that the regulation of critical infrastructure networks is too focused on keeping bills under control, rather than ensuring that the industries are making proper contingency plans for the worst-case scenarios and keeping their facilities up to scratch.

Whether this is a proper role for Ofwat, Ofgem and the rest is open to debate, but the very act of asking the question again highlights the void at the highest level of government when it comes to what could loosely be described as ‘national engineering matters’.

We are used to hearing from the chief medical officer on the ins and outs of swine flu. The chief scientific adviser certainly touches on many areas relevant to technology and innovation. But what of those vital infrastructure elements? Who has the official sanction to investigate the issues properly raised by the ICE and decide whether or not there is a problem, its extent and how it should be addressed?

The ICE report floats the possibility of a ‘resilience tsar’. We would argue that, in fact, this is yet more compelling evidence in favour of a government chief engineer with a remit to speak out on all issues relevant to our nation’s engineering base.

Andrew Lee, Editor

Note, The Engineer Technology & Innovation Awards are now open for entries. The awards celebrate the best examples of innovative collaboration between the UK’s technology-led companies and universities. Shortlisted projects will be invited to a special lunch at the Royal Society in London in December. Full details and how to enter are available at www.theengineerawards.co.uk.