Broke and broken

Sooner or later people will have to start listening to the folk who keep Britain moving.

Civil engineers tend to be a phlegmatic bunch. Design it. Build it. Move on to the next project. But in recent years they’ve been getting more and more vocal about the widening gap between the imaginary future peddled by our leaders and the one that’s probably really in store for us.

The Institution of Civil Engineers interviewed hundreds of professionals in industry and government for a new report, State of the Nation: Infrastructure 2014. The consensus is that our power, water and transport infrastructure is starting to crumble from to neglect and the effects of severe weather. The media immediately jumped on the weather angle (cue pointless arguments about the reality of climate change), rather ignoring the ICE’s other point, which is that what we actually face is a shortage of capital.

The Guardian reported the ICE’s vice-president Keith Clark saying:

‘It will become more difficult to run all services in all conditions: it will not always be cost-effective. Funding will always be constrained as their are only two sources-tax and user charging – both ultimately falling on the consumer. Clearly there are some difficult decisions ahead…what networks can and should operated 24/7 in what conditions.’

The engineers also pointed to the narrowing gap between energy supply and demand. As Gail Tverberg tirelessly explains on her blog, we live in a system where energy shortages lead to capital shortages and vice versa. Power politics will influence where the consequences bite will first and hardest internationally but the ICE’s blunt language shows it doesn’t believe Britain will be able to stave them off for very long.

Not so long ago, the ICE put out a report on Britain’s prospects for breaking its dependence on fossil fuels before they become so scarce and costly to extract that we can’t run our economy on them. The short answer is that we cannot do it in time. As you’d expect, no government policies were visibly harmed by the report and since then the story has all been about fracking saving the day. Too bad that fracking’s great white hope is on schedule to turn to dust in a year two, at around the same time as conventional oil and natural gas liquids begin to decline inexorably.

So, even with the best will in the world and the most judicious applications of scarce capital to the maintenance of  existing infrastructure, the ICE believes we’re eventually going to have to put up with intermittent power, water and transportation. Quite how that verdict squares with our leaders’ persistent determination to pour billions into vanity projects like HS2 or a third runway at Heathrow or Gatwick is anyone’s guess.

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