Built in Britain

Yesterday I watched the first episode of Evan Davis‘s two-part programme Built in Britain. If you like engineering then you’ll love this. It is great to see a big-budget BBC feature on civil engineering that both celebrates modern engineering projects in the UK, but also attempts to answer some of the more difficult questions that new infrastructure projects raise. I feel that engineering programmes usually feature the superlatives – biggest, tallest, longest, deepest – and miss the more important issues, like what societal benefit large-scale engineering projects do, or in some cases don’t, bring. The example of the A3 tunnel under the Devil’s Punch Bowl is a great example of how the case can be made for an expensive infrastructure projects (see links below). And the example of Kielder dam shows how risky predicting the future is.

I liked Davis’s description of the transformative effect of infrastructure: not just the ability to transport goods from A to B; but the capacity to change what people think about the place that they live in – even what they think about themselves. For example, a new railway may suddenly make the population of an inland town perceive that they live closer to the sea.

A refreshing feature was an interview with people who objected thirty years ago to the construction through their neighbourhood of the M25, London’s orbital motorway. Today those protesters admit that they wouldn’t want to see the motorway gone. This is a take on nimby protests that is rarely seen.

It is a bit disappointing that the project managers and operators were engineers, but the featured visionary was an architect. Some things don’t change.

See also Evan Davis’s article ‘Is Britain Experiencing a Golden Age of Engineering?

Links – A3 Hindhead tunnel (Devils Punchbowl)

  • See the excellent Highways Agency page about this project, which includes project data and diagrams.
  • Read the National Trust page about this project
  • Watch this video of someone riding through the tunnel on their motorbike!

Image – mural at Paddington Station