Bertha, the world's biggest tunneling machine, has been stuck under Seattle for over a year

Bertha's facade in happier times. Image: Washington State Department of Transport.

Meet Bertha: 

Bertha is the world's largest tunnel boring machine. She weighs 7,000 tons and, at 17.5 metres tall, is roughly the height of a three storey house. Unfortunately, she's also currently stuck in a tunnel 18m below Seattle. 

Named after Seattle's only female mayor, Bertha was built in Japan and arrived in Seattle by boat in 2013. Her job (yes, we're sticking with "her") was to burrow for two miles along the waterfront to make way for a new, four lane, double-layered road, which would replace the earthquake-damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct:

The tunneling began in July 2013, and by December 2013, Bertha had dug through 1,000 feet of the route (roughly ten per cent of the total). What happened next is up for debate: local media reported that the machine hit an unexpected metal pipe, while the Washington Department of Transport's official line is that she "heated up", which damaged seals inside the machine. 

Whatever the cause, fixing a machine the size of a house stuck underneath a major city is no easy thing. That's why, over one year on, Bertha is still there. At the moment, workers are building a giant pit so they can free the machine's front end, and lift it up to the surface for repairs. But according to Global Construction Reviewthe project has already cost the city $2bn, and state officials aren't happy.

Earlier this week, two Republican senators in the state put forward a bill to give up on the project altogether, as extracting the machine would be too difficult. Luckily for Bertha, however, Curtis King, the chair of the transport committe,e said this was not realistic, and that he would not hear the bill. As he put it:: "Now is not the time to be talking about, let’s bury it, let’s save ourselves,”

As it stands, then, the workers will continue to dig until they can hoist her front end out of the ground.

Until then, tunneling fans can visit this Bertha model at the tunnel project information centre (human is not to scale): 

 Image: Dennis Bratland at Wikimedia Commons.

This helpful clip also explains how the tunnel boring process works. Essentially, giant blades at the front tear up the earth and rocks, then the debris is carried away by a complex conveyor belt system at the back:

Not shown: Bertha choking on a bit of pipe and dying. 

This article was updated on 2/2/2015 to reflect the fact that Curtis King was not one of the bill's proposers but is chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Images: WSDOT.


The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 

There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.