"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 Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.