"Mega-canal" proposal distributed in Government

Canal running from Pennines to London would transport goods, power and water.

Aecom, an American professional services company, has proposed construction of a "mega-canal" running from the Scottish borders to London. The canal, which would cost £14bn to create, be 24m wide and run alongside a high-voltage power cable, is intended to provide solutions to future issues with water supply, power transmission and sustainable transport.

Yesterday, Construction Manager magazine reported that the proposal was implicitly supported by DECC's scientific adviser David McKay, who distributed copies to to officials at the BIS, Defra and the Department for Transport, and describes the reasoning behind it:

The canal would help to mitigate any future drought and also supply additional irrigation to the agricultural sector, by feeding Scottish water into existing waterways.

And as well as offering a sustainable alternative to road and rail freight, facilitating the movement of biomass fuel to the south, it could also carry High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) cables in special compartments, with the water providing natural cooling.

Aecom's associate director David Weight argues that there's real hope for the proposal:

“We think that unlike HS2, local authorities would be queuing up to have a canal going through their area. As for funding, we’d anticipate a multi-stakeholder approach. There are many organisations that could either save money by using the canal or extract a toll for others to use it — for instance Scottish Power, Scottish Water, the National Grid…

The canal would also be perfect for associated developments, such as eco-towns — the power and water are already there.

The proposal is an elegant – if rather brute-force – method of combining solutions to several problems facing Britain today. Unlike the Victorian Georgian age of canals, which were primarily built for transportation of goods, Aecom envisages a greater focus being on the transportation of water, from the pennines down to the drought-ridden South East. The transmission of goods would be only secondary – although with shipping being one of the most environmentally friendly methods of transport around, it's not inconceivable that it could have a second wind.

Adding in transport of power on top, solving three problems in one, is also a very good idea. But despite that, this remains blue-sky thinking. The joined-up nature which is its greatest strength is also the single biggest reason why it's unlikely to be implemented: as good as it is at solving a number of problems, it's not likely to be the best method to solve any individual one. DECC would rather increase generation capacity; the DfT would rather focus on rails and roads; and Defra's water strategy doesn't envisage any large scale transport of water.

Instead, it's best to look at the Aecom proposal as something between a wonderful highlight of how low we now aim with our mega-projects, and porn for infrastructure geeks. With a little bit of steampunk thrown in for good measure, too – now, how about those zeppelins?

Update: @BorisWatch points out I have got my ages of canals wrong. By the time Victoria was on the throne, the railway boom had all but killed canals.

A map of the proposed route. Photograph: Construction Manager

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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How a small tax rise exposed the SNP's anti-austerity talk for just that

The SNP refuse to use their extra powers to lessen austerity, says Kezia Dugdale.

"We will demand an alternative to slash and burn austerity."

With those few words, Nicola Sturgeon sought to reassure the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year that the SNP were a party opposed to public spending cuts. We all remember the general election TV debates, where the First Minister built her celebrity as the leader of the anti-austerity cause.

Last week, though, she was found out. When faced with the choice between using the powers of the Scottish Parliament to invest in the future or imposing cuts to our schools, Nicola Sturgeon chose cuts. Incredible as it sounds the SNP stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to vote for hundreds of millions of pounds worth of cuts to schools and other vital public services, rather than asking people to pay a little bit more to invest. That's not the choice of an anti-austerity pin-up. It's a sell-out.

People living outside of Scotland may not be fully aware of the significant shift that has taken place in politics north of the border in the last week. The days of grievance and blaming someone else for decisions made in Scotland appear to be coming to an end.

The SNP's budget is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament. It will impose hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts to local public services - including our schools. We don't know what cuts the SNP are planning for future years because they are only presenting a one year budget to get them through the election, but we know from the experts that the biggest cuts are likely to come in 2017/18 and 2018/19. For unprotected budgets like education that could mean cuts of 16 per cent.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. The Scottish Parliament has the power to stop these cuts, if only we have the political will to act. Last week I did just that.

I set out a plan, using the new powers we have today, to set a Scottish rate of income tax 1p higher than that set by George Osborne. This would raise an extra half a billion pounds, giving us the chance to stop the cuts to education and other services. Labour would protect education funding in real terms over the next five years in Scotland. Faced with the choice of asking people to pay a little bit more to invest or carrying on with the SNP's cuts, the choice was pretty simple for me - I won't support cuts to our nation’s future prosperity.

Being told by commentators across the political spectrum that my plan is bold should normally set alarm bells ringing. Bold is usually code for saying something unpopular. In reality, it's pretty simple - how can I say I am against cuts but refuse to use the powers we have to stop them?

Experts - including Professors David Bell and David Eiser of the University of Stirling; the Resolution Foundation; and IPPR Scotland - have said our plan is fair because the wealthiest few would pay the most. Trade unions have backed our proposal, because they recognise the damage hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts will do to our schools and the jobs it will cost.

Council leaders have said our plan to pay £100 cashback to low income taxpayers - including pensioners - to ensure they benefit from this plan is workable.

The silliest of all the SNP's objections is that they won't back our plan because the poorest shouldn't have to pay the price of Tory austerity. The idea that imposing hundreds of millions of pounds of spending cuts on our schools and public services won't make the poorest pay is risible. It's not just the poorest who will lose out from cuts to education. Every single family and business in Scotland would benefit from having a world class education system that gives our young the skills they need to make their way in the world.

The next time we hear Nicola Sturgeon talk up her anti-austerity credentials, people should remember how she did nothing when she had the chance to end austerity. Until now it may have been acceptable to say you are opposed to spending cuts but doing nothing to stop them. Those days are rapidly coming to a close. It makes for the most important, and most interesting, election we’ve had in Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale is leader of Scottish Labour.