Yearly Archives

30 Articles

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The Big Bridge

I’d like to stake a claim for the A75 in France as the greatest road in Europe. Admittedly the first time I drove down it I had been on the road for nearly 24 hours and was possibly slightly delirious. But I did then travel back up it at a more leisurely pace and was similarly impressed. The southbound journey will forever be burned in my memory though.

The conditions were perfect — bright, clear sky and high sun in the early afternoon. And there was almost no traffic. I went nearly 100k without seeing another car at one point. The road winds its way through the foothills of the Pyrenees, up and down valleys. Until it gets to one valley in particular, where the road builders decided just to go point to point, rather than up and down. Here is the Viaduc de Millau, the single most amazing bridge ever built. I am a big fan of Brunel and all his work, but this is something else.

Fans of Top Gear will be familiar with the Viaduc de Millau. It was used by the team as the location for a side-by-side comparison of supercars in the last season. But however fantastic the camera work of the Top Gear team, to drive over it is something else.

About 20k before I reached the bridge I began to realise that I might be heading in its direction. My total absence of any sense of direction, and my resulting total reliance on SatNav meant I really had no idea that it was on my itinerary. Coming over the crest of a hill and seeing confirmation that I was to cross it was a very pleasant surprise.

The relevance to the future of all this? Ambition. There was no need for the builders of the Viaduc to recruit Richard Rogers to create a piece of artwork, rather than throwing up a functional concrete span. But they did, and in doing so created something that enhances an already beautiful valley and has become a tourist attraction in its own right. This is the future of responsible construction.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The State of Welfare

I’ve just come back from a couple of weeks on the continent, doing some work, and having some fun. The first week was spent at 3GSM, the massive mobile industry trade show over in Barcelona. The second driving back through France, visiting friends and various tourist sites along the way. The trip has inspired a few new ideas and perspectives on the future.

A conversation with a friend in Paris sparked this particular post. He has been in welfare and social services, and helping to create policy around these areas, for the last thirty years. He has come to a conclusion that some might see as radical: that the current approach to the welfare state in Europe, largely driven by handouts, is doomed to failure. We need to tackle the root causes of poverty more effectively, and unfortunately the handouts themselves might be part of the problem.

It all sounds fairly right wing, the sort of language an old Tory government might have used before announcing swingeing cuts to the welfare state (calling benefits ‘handouts’ is typical Daily Mail-style inflammatory language, but that might just have been the translation). However, the point itself makes a lot of sense. The state can’t afford to budget for endless expenditure on benefits, given the growing and ageing population. We also simply can’t afford to have so many people not working. I learned at a conference yesterday that there are now a million fewer 20-somethings than there were 10 years ago, and apparently thirty percent of public servants qualify for retirement in the next decade.

Those capable of work need to be given every opportunity, and encouragement, to move in to work. This includes all sorts of groups even the discussion of whom is largely a no-go area for many politicians: notably the disabled, and single parents.

The root causes of unemployment are many, but there are some obvious ones that need to be addressed. The greed and laziness theories of some of the press, who describe armies of benefit cheats — largely asylum seekers in their misguided view — are generally held to be inaccurate within the profession. Education, childcare and simple lack of confidence are more pertinent issues to be addressed than criminality.

Where the difficulty lies is getting the right balance between carrot and stick. The stick is generally the withdrawal of benefits but this has to be applied long after people have been given the opportunities. The carrots are many: greater wealth should be the obvious one, but there is also the impact on self-esteem and quality of life that the right job can bring. Certainly though, if some people are genuinely better off on benefits then this needs to be addressed. The current British government seems to be moving in the right direction — if a little slowly — by increasing the provision of childcare before and after school. Free childcare for all might be scarily expensive from the chancellor’s perspective but it is hard to argue against the long-term benefits to the country, both social and financial.

And this is where the problem lies: the solution requires a long-term view. Yet most politicians seem to be more concerned with re-election than actually making a difference. Witness the glacial pace of change implemented by the ‘New’ Labour government despite a radical agenda and a landslide victory. The short-term approach means increasing benefits for popular or vote-winning constituencies (savings schemes for kids, re-establishing the link with inflation for pensions), and cutting those for the more unpopular groups (to the point where genuine asylum seekers are treated like criminals whatever their reason for entering the country).

So to the future: we either need more selfless politicians, or a different form of government. Flip-flopping between left and right every few years is a very slow way to make progress, and we can’t afford to be slow about this.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Weathering the Storm

This weekend I got well and truly stuck. Snowed-in to be specific. Not something that happens often in the UK. Even more freakishly it only took around ten minutes of snow to make three different routes out of the valley I was in unpassable, at least as far as my car was concerned (low-profile tyres and a torque-y diesel engine do not make a happy combination for driving on snow).

It got me thinking about climate change — most immediately how that is a much better name for what is happening than Global Warming. Kudos to the PR team who engineered that one.

Looking at the fairly basic, but very informative BBC Online pages about climate change, you can see that it will probably mean three things for the UK. More flooding, higher average temperatures, and more wind and rain. Given that our architecture isn’t designed for these conditions — as demonstrated by the casualties of last week’s winds — and that there simply isn’t enough space in the UK to move everyone to higher ground, we’re going to need some pretty innovative solutions.

House design could change in some fairly interesting ways. For example, roof structures will need to be redesigned and refurbished so that they are less susceptible to winds and torrential downpours. Thousands of houses in the UK have ageing roofs that wind can easily get under, and water can easily get through. Perhaps the roofing business is a good place to be right now? Especially if you can combine roof reinforcement with photovoltaic panels, which are slowly falling in price.

Flood plains are fairly common in the UK — too common for everyone to just move out of them. So will we see areas of land artificially raised? Or perhaps streets and houses built on stilts/piles that take them above water? If not, it might be time to start shopping for a houseboat, if you live near a river.

Heavy rains are bizarrely difficult for the water companies to capture. The fact that parts of the UK have only just come out of a hosepipe ban, tells us something is going to need to be done about the water infrastructure. Not only must we waste less, we must become more efficient at capturing what does fall in heavy rains.

Power infrastructure too will need to be reinforced. Given the relatively light lashing (by future standards) the UK received, it was disturbing how many people were without power, and for how long.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Back to the BOTF: Energy

Right, back on my favourite hobby horse for another ride: energy.

The BOTF looked at four energy sources: wind, water, solar…and fusion.

The last one still seems very much science fiction rather than fact. For all the successes of the JET programme, and forthcoming ITER, you still have to put in a lot more energy than you get out for fusion to occur. More energy sink than energy source then. (I also seem to remember a problem with the toroidal magnetic fields twisting and lifting tons of equipment off the ground, but I can’t find any evidence of this on the web. Any clues greatly appreciated).

It is the other three sources, and their lack of employment that vexes me.

For example, in the UK we are currently considering a massive building programme for new nuclear power stations to meet our growing energy needs as we try and ween ourselves off coal and shut down the ageing Magnox reactors. Yet we find ourselves falling out (pun intended) with Iran over its desire to build nuclear reactors because of the potential side effects that it supports the creation of nuclear weapons.

Imagine if all the money the British government had poured in to supporting a loss-making nuclear industry had instead been poured in to research into renewable energy. Today instead of negotiating a fine line with Iran over whether they really need nuclear power, and why we are allowed to have it but they aren’t, we could demonstrate that no-one needs it. If Iran really wanted nuclear weapons rather than energy, its government would have to say so explicitly.

Simplistic? Maybe, but given the amount of progress the renewable energy industry has made with just tiny levels of investment, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect much greater advances with significantly more investment.

Wind power particularly has made great strides. Small turbines are now available in B+Q (although not with my suggested packaging of the government grant), which brings us back to the theme of my last post: self-sufficiency. If householders all start putting up wind turbines of our own accord we will reduce our reliance on the energy companies. They might take notice and finally start to invest a bit more heavily in technologies that will reduce our reliance on oil and dirty, expensive, nuclear fission.

Then we might be on a slightly better footing when we start telling other countries that they’re not allowed nuclear power because it’s dangerous.

Tom Cheesewright