High speed train of the type proposed for the HS2 network
High speed train of the type proposed for the HS2 networkReuters

UK Chancellor George Osborne's Autumn Statement announcement of spending on housing, £2.3bn of investment in flood defences and £15bn of road improvements, is vital to overturn decades of stalemate on British infrastructure projects.

And the scale of the challenge for Britain is so great, that really this should only be the start.

When the first UK motorways were built in the 1950s and '60s, little thought was given to protecting the environment, culture, landscape, history, or local communities.

Building the first section of the M1 focused almost exclusively on civil engineering priorities – following an uncompromising route that would be unthinkable now, slicing through whatever stood in its path.

However, even as far back as the nineteenth century, some engineers made concessions to environmental or population concerns.

A landscape architect might incorporate an environmentally sensitive planting scheme along the route or shape the landscape to reduce noise pollution. When the railways were first built, influential landowners lobbied to ensure the route avoided their estates on the grounds that it would disturb their peace.

One Northampton farmer opposed the construction of the London to Manchester railway on the grounds that it would 'injure the fleeces of his sheep'.

Our understanding of the impact of large-scale construction has grown exponentially since then, and sustainability has rightly become intrinsic to the planning of new major infrastructure projects.

High Speed 2
Sustainability has rightly become intrinsic to the planning of new major infrastructure projectsGetty

Balancing environmental concerns and infrastructure

UK and European Union (EU) legislation have introduced strict requirements and minimum standards. Now, every new project starts with an impact assessment including mitigation considerations.

Before it receives approval, expert analysts weigh up a range of seemingly intangible factors – from whether the visual impact on an area of outstanding natural beauty is more significant than potentially damaging the setting of an important individual heritage site, to how many people should be re-housed to avoid disturbing a protected habitat or species.

Not a stone will be turned, nor a tree felled for the HS2 route until nearly 10 years of sustainability assessments, environmental impact assessment and consultations are conducted, involving multiple alternative proposed routes.

Now, all major infrastructure schemes parade their environmental credentials.

London's 2012 Olympic bid boasted the most sustainable Games ever, with aspirations to encourage "the sport sector generally to contribute to nature conservation and bring people closer to nature". Slightly awkward official enthusiasm aside, this is an indication of how far we have come.

Boris Island
An airport in the Thames Estuary, known as 'Boris Island', is favoured by the Mayor of LondonFoster and partners

The Thames Estuary Airport plan to increase capacity with "Boris Island" was an attempt at the kind of courageous solution to expansion problems of which the Victorians would have been proud. However it was vetoed, partly due to environmental concerns about protecting the natural salt marshes and mudflats of Kent and Essex.

The chairman of the Airports Commission, Sir Howard Davies, said these were "environmental hurdles which it may prove impossible, or very time-consuming to surmount".

In contrast, London mayor Boris Johnson argued that failure to relocate the airport and instead build an additional runway at Heathrow would have a huge impact on the thousands of people who live in the vicinity, who would experience, "unbelievable levels of noise, blight and pollution".

With the decision not to pursue the Island option, it could be argued that urban housing issues and noise pollution have been given lower priority than protecting natural habitats.

From a construction perspective it can already seem that, through our entirely appropriate desire to protect the natural environment, we are over-regulating projects to the extent that they become difficult to get off the ground and to complete.

Extending this further to give similar weight to social, cultural and historical considerations has the potential to compound this further if it is not done carefully.

Ambition like that of our industrial revolution ancestors now belongs not to the UK, but to those realising the mega-projects of the Gulf and East Asia.

In the UK, our sustainability practices are second to none, but our confidence sometimes falters.

In order to meet the economic challenges that face our country, and leave solid infrastructure for future generations, we urgently need to find a way to pursue bold, exciting and sustainable construction programmes that will leave the kind of legacy for which Britain used to be known.


Adrian Marsh is a Director of RSK Environment Ltd. He is a Chartered Engineer and Chartered Geologist with over 35 years' experience in civil engineering, transportation, building and property planning, design, construction and whole-life asset management.