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.

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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