Looking Ahead

21 April 2020

As this issue goes to print, all Crossrail and Transport for London sites that can be safely shut down, have been. Critical works will continue, but to slow the spread of Covid-19 through the UK, non-essential work has been halted. Tunnelling events around the world have been cancelled, to the extent that we have dropped the events pages from this issue. At this time it also remains to be seen how the government at home, and governments abroad, will support the construction industry.

Rather than reiterate the news that everyone must be familiar with and weary of, I will look at what the industry can expect in the coming years. Helpfully the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak presented his Spring Budget a few short weeks ago.

Although it was dominated by last-minute emergency spending to fi ght the pandemic, this was also a speech with a focus on infrastructure. The winners were the A303 (the Stonehenge Tunnel) and the Lower Thames Crossing, which will go ahead as part of the Road Investment Strategy 2 (RIS2). This spending programme will see GBP 27bn (USD 31bn) invested in the country’s roads over the next fi ve years.

Like High Speed 2, the Stonehenge Tunnel faces considerable environmental opposition, but the opportunity to remove a surface road from a World Heritage Site while improving the capacity of such a painful bottleneck should be clear, although a longer tunnel would pose less risk to the archaeology.

The Lower Thames Crossing is also an essential project to mitigate congestion on the Blackwall crossing, and it is good to see it green-lit. The latest news from that project is that Covid-19 has delayed the public consultation by a couple of weeks.

The Trans-Pennine Tunnel has been less lucky, and it has been dropped for now. Although the report recognised that travel between the cities of Manchester and Sheffi eld is one fi fth of that between Manchester and Leeds, the presence of the Peak District National Park means that planners want to tread carefully.

Further studies are needed to determine what, if anything, can be done to improve connections. Similarly, the Oxford to Cambridge Expressway has been delayed.

This is an exciting project that could have dramatically improved the infrastructure of the highly productive ‘Three Counties’ region to the north and north west of London. An alternative route between Oxford and Milton Keynes is being considered.

Doubtless the business case is there, but this somehow lacks the poetry of the original plan.

It feels like life is a little on hold right now, but the investment is still coming.