Why does Britain struggle to build power plants?

A power station we did manage to build: Hinckley Point C. Image: Getty.

Much of Britain’s infrastructure is long past its sell-by date. This is partly down to ineffective financing, a lack of investment, and a government preference for fancy megaprojects over boring-but-crucial things like the energy grid.

History shows, however, that there is another, simpler reason: the neglect of project management, namely, the planning and construction of infrastructure projects. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the UK’s pitiful record with power stations.

Just look at Hinkley Point C. In its desire to avoid British consumers subsidising construction, and its belief that the private sector could simply build a nuclear power plant, the government has effectively handed over project management responsibilities and oversight to French state energy firm EDF. This means it now has little say in or control over any construction problems, the cost of which EDF will recoup through a very generous fixed price for the electricity the plant generates. Under the present arrangement, the British government cannot do much about the fact its flagship nuclear project is already £1.5bn over budget and a year behind schedule.

Failure to ensure that power plants are built on time and on budget goes back much further. In fact, long lead times, engineering problems, cost overruns, and construction delays have been problems in the UK since the early 1960s. A 1963 select committee report on the electricity industry pointed out that it took five years for a station to be commissioned in the UK, compared to two-and-a-half years in the US and just 13 months in Japan. A few years later, the National Board for Prices and Income found that incomplete power stations were costing the taxpayer around £30m a year in annual interest payments alone, roughly £345m in today’s money.

Nuclear power plants were by far the worse. In the mid-1960s, the UK decided to build a series of plants using a British-designed advanced gas cooled reactor (AGR) that had never been built on a commercial scale. Construction was hampered by engineering problems, however. For example, Dungeness B station in Kent, the first AGR station, started construction in 1965 and was meant to be completed within five years. But the station wasn’t connected to the grid until 1983, and didn’t start commercial operation until 1985, 15 years behind schedule.

Berkeley nuclear power station in Gloucestershire, under construction in the late 1950s. Image: Ben Brooksbank/creative commons.

As early as 1969, the Wilson Committee, which was set up to examine the causes of these delays, pointed to inefficient management. Project managers responsible for overseeing construction were either incompetent or had little incentive to speed things up, and the committee recommended more authority should be exerted over them. Its suggestion was echoed that same year by the select committee on science and technology, which argued that inadequate attention on site had led to many breakdowns of power station generators.


The problem was the government did not take much heed of these recommendations. Records held at The National Archives from this period show there was little urgency among civil servants or politicians to rectify the situation. Nuclear energy was considered crucial to Britain’s energy security and industrial strategy, but much less importance was placed on ensuring that the nuclear plants were built on time. Roy Mason, minister of power in the late 60s, went so far as to obstruct the construction of a nuclear power plant to appease the National Union of Mineworkers. In fact, there seemed little realisation within government that a key to successful infrastructure project lay in efficient project management – and the the ability to construct on budget and on time.

The ConversationHinkley shows that this same tendency to overlook the importance of project management still exists today. It’s just one aspect of infrastructure policy, of course. But until the government starts making project management more of a priority there is no guarantee the UK will get its infrastructure right. Funds and financing are important – but what actually happens on construction sites is equally, if not even more, crucial.

Tae Hoon Kim is a researcher in energy politics at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.