The road fix

Why do we keep building more roads? Because when it comes to planning, the deck is cynically stacked

Britain's environmentalists have won every argument against expanding the roads network - but still the government keeps pouring billions of pounds into new highways.

Studies show that new roads do not solve congestion - they just generate more traffic. They add to pollution and, of course, they raise Britain's greenhouse gas emissions. Road transport already generates 142m tonnes of CO2 a year - about 25 per cent of Britain's total. As the European emissions trading scheme puts an ever-higher price on carbon, those emissions could cost the taxpayer increasingly dearly.

The Treasury and Department for Transport know this, so why do their economists give their blessing to Labour's £13bn roads programme?

The answer lies far away from public scrutiny in the arcane and biased rules under which proposed roads are assessed. These New Approach to Appraisal (Nata) rules were introduced by La bour in 1998 under the integrated transport policy designed by John Prescott, then overseeing environment and transport. Most of Prescott's plans were chucked out by Blair and Brown as being far too green, but the Department for Transport (DfT) loved Nata and now the reasons are becoming clear.

Under Nata, road builders such as the Highways Agency and local authorities must submit detailed assessments of proposed transport projects to the government. These are meant to be balance sheets showing the costs, benefits and environmental impacts. In theory this is a good thing, but in reality the rules are designed to make road schemes look better than any greener alternative, every time.

Take section 3.5.1[1] of the Nata rules. This awards extra points to schemes that generate more traffic because more cars and lorries on the road mean more fuel sales - and hence more tax revenue for the government. By contrast, public transport schemes, which take motor vehicles off the road and so reduce fuel sales and tax revenue, have points deducted.

Then there's the rule on journey times, where planners can claim that a road will bring economic benefits if they can show it will cut the average journey time of each user. Every minute saved for a car driver is valued at 44p - which can be offset against the cost of building the road.

Forty-four pence may not sound much, but multiply it by the number of minutes saved per trip, then again by the millions of drivers using the road each year - and then yet again by 60 years, the notional lifetime of most road schemes. The result, invariably, is a huge positive value for every proposed road.

How does this work in practice? Look, for example, at the scheme to widen a 56km stretch of the M1 between junctions 30 and 42. The cost to the taxpayer is £1.5bn, which sounds like a lot, but the Highways Agency has used the Nata system to claim that, over the next 60 years, the widening is worth no less than £4.5bn because of the time it will save travellers. Since this supposed "benefit" to the economy far exceeds the cost, the scheme has been approved.

Just how biased this system can be is set out in the Nata rules that assign lower values to other types of traveller. A minute saved on a cyclist's travel time, for example, isn't worth 44p but just 28p. A bus-user's time is valued at 33p a minute. The implicit assumption is that cyclists and bus-users make less contribution to the economy than car drivers.

Roads can be made to look even better. Manipulating the accident figures is a typical device. If a proposed road can be predicted to reduce accidents, then each life saved and injury prevented can be given a notional value. The Highways Agency predicts that another £2.5bn M1 widening scheme (junctions 21-30) would prevent 2,081 accidents over 60 years, of which four would be fatal. This, it claims, adds £105m to the value of the scheme. (It would also, it calculates, generate another £41.3m in taxes from the extra fuel sold.) Critics point out that such calculations, based on accidents that have not yet happened on a road that is not even built, are dubious in the extreme.

Nata assessments have also always avoided costing the most damaging aspects of new roads, such as the impact on landscapes, noise and pollution and, of course, carbon emissions. This means that, even though a road might be an environmental disaster, there are no estimated cash costs to be set against the claimed economic benefits. Instead the planners give a qualitative assessment, using terms such as "moderate", "severe" or, worst of all, "very large adverse".

These qualitative judgements have in the past been enough to frustrate the road builders. Alistair Darling rejected "improvements" to the A303 that would have carved a new road through the Blackdown Hills, an area of outstanding natural beauty on the Devon-Somerset borders, after seeing in the Nata assessment that it would have a "seriously adverse" impact. He apparently did not want to be the minister who overruled such a negative assessment.

It should be no surprise that ever since that decision was taken, Treasury and DfT officials have been working to get rid of such "emotional" analyses by designing a system to assign monetary values to landscapes, tranquillity and biodiversity. The ostensible aim is to make the system more "objective" and number-based - but the crucial issue is what values are assigned to qualities that are inherently priceless. How much might the last dormouse in Wiltshire be worth? Soon Labour's minions may be able to tell you.

Appearance of objectivity

A hint of what lies in store came in the Eddington report, published last December. Sir Rod Ed dington, former chief executive of British Airways, was commissioned by the Treasury and DfT to examine the long-term links between transport and the UK's economic productivity and he found that building lots more roads would bring huge benefits to the economy for a relatively low environmental cost. "Even after accounting for environmental effects, there appears to be a good case for adding strategic road infrastructure over and above the schemes in the current roads programme," said his report, suggesting that Britain's trunk roads and motorways needed 3,350km of new lanes by 2025, at a cost of up to £33bn.

But how did Eddington account for environmental costs? His report does not explain, but a footnote directs the reader to an obscure research annexe, "Transport Demand to 2025 and the Economic Case for Road Pricing and Investment", written by Treasury officials. This document doesn't explain how Eddington priced the environment either, but it refers the reader to yet another set of reports commissioned by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 2002, for a purpose entirely different from road-building.

Based on these outdated reports, the Eddington study assigned a one-off value to the damage done by roads to the landscape of between £900,000 and £1.25m for each kilometre of new lane that is built - a remarkably small sum compared to both the claimed economic benefits and the £40m cost of building the average kilometre of trunk road.

(If this approach seems to lack rigour then the Treasury report's forecasts for fuel costs are even less rooted in reality. "Fuel costs are forecast to fall by 26 per cent up to 2025," they said. "This comprises a 3 per cent increase in fuel prices and a 28 per cent increase in fuel efficiency. An oil price of $35 a barrel is assumed in 2025." Oil prices, of course, had already hit $50 a barrel when this report was published last year. They have stayed that way ever since and analysts predict the long-term trend is upwards, meaning roads will become ever less economical.)

What Eddington and the Treasury have done is to give the road builders a way of putting an apparent monetary value on landscape and tranquillity, so creating the appearance of objectivity when assessing the costs and benefits of any new road. In reality, however, the values assigned to landscape and tranquillity are so low that they will always be far outweighed by the apparent economic benefits.

"The upshot of all these assessment systems is that, however bad a road might look to the people living near its route, and however damaging it is likely to be to the environment, the economic 'benefits' will, on paper, always look much greater," says Rebecca Lush of Transport 2000, who has analysed the reports.

The great factor that is missing from these calculations is the cost of carbon emissions. In their appraisals, the road builders have to say how much extra CO2 their scheme will generate. The M1 widening scheme above, for example, will generate more than 186,000 tonnes a year extra CO2. But no financial cost was assigned to these emissions when this scheme was approved.

It wasn't until January this year that the DfT told road builders to begin adding a cost of £70 for each tonne of carbon emitted in project calculations. This is still too low to shift the equations away from favouring road building - and it will apply only to new projects. Moreover, £70 is an arbitrary sum because no one can agree how to price the the cost of future carbon emissions. Some experts have said the real value should be around £1,000 a tonne. Once again, therefore, factors that should count against new road projects are undervalued while those that support them are overvalued.

The £13bn-worth of new roads approved under the Nata system makes Labour's roads programme even larger than the one they inherited from the Conservatives in 1997. Back then, the new Labour government cancelled that programme with promises of an integrated transport system.

Among schemes that have recently been approved is the widening of the M25, which will turn most of London's orbital motorway into an eight-lane highway under a private finance initiative that will cost taxpayers more than £5bn. Around Leeds, the M62 motorway is approved for a £336m widening. This year the government will decide whether to approve a £3bn project to widen the M6 between Birmingham and Manchester.

Undermining rail

The Highways Agency is also seeking approval for the Mottram-Tintwistle bypass, a short-cut for lorries through the Peak District National Park. The main economic justification is the notional value, under Nata criteria, of the time the road would save for drivers - put at £159m over 60 years. Opponents of the scheme say the national park is worth a lot more than that.

Also on the table are some highly controversial local road schemes such as the Dorset County Council's Weymouth relief road, which would slice through the Dorset Downs area of outstanding natural beauty, a site of special scientific interest, as well as ancient woodlands. Again, the main economic justification is the notional time saved for drivers, put at £275m over 30 years.

A secondary effect of the Nata rules is to undermine the economic case for investing in public transport. The light rail schemes variously proposed for Liverpool, Sheffield, Portsmouth, Leeds and other cities were all turned down for funding under the Nata formula, as the government declared they were "poor value for money" and recommended bus schemes instead. Another bias in the system is that the government requires light rail planners to contribute 25 per cent of the funding, whereas road builders have to contribute only 10 per cent.

There is strong evidence that assessment systems such as Nata offer no real guide to a road's future performance. Last year the former Countryside Agency and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England published an investigation into three completed road projects, comparing the predictions made before they were built with what happened afterwards.

It looked at the A34 Newbury bypass, the A27 Polegate bypass and the M65 Blackburn southern bypass, and in each case found that the preliminary assessments had underestimated the scale of traffic growth and the impact on the landscape. They had also made little allowance for the way new roads increase development pressure, often leading to a rash of buildings along their length.

The report concluded: "Issues of induced traffic growth, landscape impact and development pressures are rarely addressed adequately in the evaluations. It is easy to gain the impression that evaluations are carried out in consultancy back offices for the interests of Highways Agency officers only."

Recently the DfT said it planned to "refresh" the Nata rules to take account of the Stern review on the economics of climate change, the Eddington report and other developments. What this is likely to mean, say insiders, is the disappearance of "emotive" descriptions of a new road's impact on the landscape and wildlife and their replacement with indices - numbers - that will have far less obvious meaning. The low price placed on carbon emissions of £70 per tonne is unlikely to change.

This will open the way for Eddington's vision to prevail. Carbon emissions, damaged landscapes, lost tranquillity and vanishing biodiversity will all be given such tiny numerical values that they will inevitably be wiped out by the economic "benefits". The economists will be satisfied, the politicians will be absolved - and the road builders will be delighted.

Jonathan Leake is the Sunday Times science and environment editor

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix

Charlie Forgham-Bailey for the New Statesman
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"I teach dirty tricks": the explosives expert who shows armies how to deal with terrorists

Sidney Alford used to blow things up in his garage. Now his expertise is helping save lives.

“I’ll fetch the hammer,” says Sidney Alford, leaving me in a laboratory filled with mysteriously named drawers and small bottles with skulls on their labels. When he has fetched it – “it’s a jeweller’s hammer, given to me in Paris by a friend of Salvador Dali” – the 82-year-old plans to tap gently on a small mound of white powder called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, better known as the explosive favoured by Isis in their suicide belts and homemade bombs. Because of its instability and destructive power, its nickname is “Mother of Satan”.

Tapping it with a hammer is enough to make it go bang.

Directing me to stand by the door, he searches for ear plugs before stuffing some paper in his ears – “I’m quite deaf, you know,” were almost his first words to me that morning – and begins to tap the Mother of Satan. On the fourth tap, it explodes in a genteel fashion with a flash and a pop. Its sensitivity to percussion is one of the reasons that jihadi bomb-makers suffer so many workplace accidents. “See,” Alford says. “You’d be OK walking, just don’t fall over or get shot.”

I have wanted to meet Sidney Alford ever since I heard about him from the investigative journalist Meirion Jones, who once uncovered a British man who sold £50m-worth of fake bomb detectors in Iraq and other countries. (The fraudster, James McCormick, was jailed for ten years in 2013.)

Giving a presentation to students, Jones mentioned that he could prove the gadgets were useless – just black boxes with radio aerials sticking out of them – because he had taken them “to a guy the BBC uses for explosives, who has a quarry in Somerset where he blows things up”. I decided then and there that I was very interested in being in a quarry in Somerset where someone blew things up. Maybe I would even get to press the button.

There was a less childish reason for visiting, too. Sidney Alford’s life story is interwoven with one of the technologies that defines the modern world: explosives. We fear explosives – suicide bombs, car bombs, bombs on aircraft – but we also need them, for everything from realistic film scenes to demolition. (Alford has a letter from Stanley Kubrick thanking him for his help on Full Metal Jacket.) Surprisingly, the best way to defuse an explosive is often with another explosive, something that Sidney’s company, Alford Technologies, has pioneered.

In other words, if you want to make something go bang – or, just as importantly, stop something going bang – he is the man to talk to. Quite loudly.

***

The first explosive materials Alford ever saw were fragments of bombs and V2 rockets left over from the German shelling of London. Born in 1935 in the suburb of Ilford, he moved with his family to Bournemouth when the Second World War broke out. When he returned, he found rich pickings in his battered neighbourhood in the form of magnesium incendiary bombs, which he filed down and turned into fireworks.

I ask him if, like my own father, he ever frightened his teachers with nitrogen triiodide, an unstable explosive compound that schoolchildren used to make themselves and set off in lessons to terrify unwary members of staff in the era before health and safety. “Oh yes,” he says. “I put it under my French teacher’s chair.” A pause. “He’d been in the army, so he didn’t make a fuss.”

Alford went to a grammar school, where he was an undistinguished pupil, angry that the headmaster wouldn’t let him learn German (rather than Latin) so he could speak to the Jewish child refugees he knew. But he was always interested in chemistry, and “by the fifth form, I’d recruit classmates to make bigger bangs”.

A chemistry degree came next, followed by a series of odd jobs, including diet research and studying the brain, an MSc in the science of environmental pollution, and two business associations with men he now characterises as “bad sorts”, who ripped him off.

By this time, he had moved to Ham, in west London, and had begun to take his chemistry experiments more seriously. It was the early 1970s, and the IRA’s bombing campaign had come to England. How could these weapons be neutralised, Alford wondered? Was it better to encase suspect packages in “blast containers”, or use shaped charges – typically, small cones that focus explosive energy into a point – to disrupt their ability to go off?

A brief digression on explosives is necessary here. When you think of something going bang in a spectacular fashion, that’s a detonation. “Detonare,” says Alford at one point during my tour of the quarry, relishing the Latin. “Like thunder.”

High explosives such as TNT, nitroglycerin or Semtex can be detonated by administering a violent shock to the main charge using a small amount of relatively sensitive and violent material in a metal capsule. This creates a hot shock wave, which sweeps through the substance faster than the speed of sound.

Old-fashioned gunpowder, house fires and your car’s internal combustion engine go through a different process, known as “deflagration”, where the chemical reaction moves through the molecules much more slowly. This burning is usually less dramatic and easier to manage. (Alford hates the term “controlled explosion”, reasoning that an expert should always control their explosions. If they fail, it’s a cock-up.)

The theory goes, then, that if you attack a munition just hard enough to ignite its contents but without causing a violent shock wave, it will deflagrate but, on a good day, it will not detonate. “Yes, it might make a massive fireball, but I’ve done it in jungles under a tree,” says Alford. “[With deflagration] the tree may lose most of its leaves, but with detonation, there is no tree.”

In the 1970s, he set up a makeshift laboratory in his suburban garage. There, he would experiment with making explosive charges, using measured quantities of material in different casings. He would leave his car engine running so any bangs could be plausibly written off as backfiring.

This cover story clearly didn’t wash with the neighbours, though, as first the police and then MI5 – “the most gentlemanly man” – came round to see why exactly a chemistry graduate they had never heard of was blowing stuff up in his suburban garage. When he explained himself to the security services, they put him in touch with the Ministry of Defence, and he was offered a contract.

***

Alford Technologies has a slogan: “For when you can’t afford to fail”. It also has an office in a business park outside Trowbridge in Wiltshire, but the real action happens at its testing ground, a former quarry amid the rolling hills of the Mendips, not far outside Bath. It feels like a cross between a scrapyard and a building site. “Here’s the bottom half of a Soviet mine, which we use as a brazier,” says Alford at one point, prodding it with a toecap.

Soldiers from various armies come here to learn about explosives and how to render them harmless. It’s vital work: last year in Iraq and Syria there were dozens of car bombs, with a single one in Baghdad claiming 250 lives. In Manchester this year an Isis-inspired jihadi killed 22 concert-goers and injured 250 with a backpack bomb apparently built from instructions found
on the internet.

Learning to counter such threats means understanding them; jihadists and other terrorists might have access only to basic materials, but many also display great ingenuity. When I ask why Alford has a packet of Tampax in his lab, he says the tampons can be dipped in liquid explosives and turned into cartridges: “I teach dirty tricks so they don’t get caught out by them.”

Sidney Alford’s contributions to the world of explosives rest on an unlikely substance: water. When he first began tinkering in his garage in the 1970s, engineers had already worked out a rough-and-ready way of disabling improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They used a gun barrel loaded with a blank cartridge to fire a jet of water that broke through the explosive’s casing and disrupted it. However, a sufficiently strong casing – say, one made of steel – could defeat this method.

In a low outbuilding in the quarry, Alford shows me his answer to this problem. Within a shaped charge, the force of a small explosion collapses a metal cone, turning it inside out and extruding it into a long, thin rod that shoots out at high velocity, about five times faster than a bullet.

The young chemist had an idea: why not combine the water from the older gun-barrel method with the accuracy and force of the metal jet in a shaped charge? In Alford inventions such as the Vulcan and the Pluton, the explosive charge shoots a targeted jet of water at high speed and with incredible accuracy.

Ho ho, you’re thinking. Water! Very scary. This is broadly what I thought until I saw one of Alford’s smaller shaped charges in action. After the demonstration with the hammer, he put on a pair of sturdy boots instead of brogues and we hopped into a small four-by-four to get to the base of the quarry. “Should I take my safety glasses?” I asked, even though we would be inside an old reinforced lookout hut salvaged from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. “Oh no,” replied Alford. “If it goes wrong, it will kill you. No need to waste a perfectly good pair of glasses.”

The Vulcan is about six-inches long, with a case of grey plastic, and loaded with 30g of plastic explosives with a cone of water held in front of it. The explosive is “about two toasts’ worth of butter,” said Alford’s project manager, Matt Eades, who served in the Royal Engineers for 25 years.

Alford placed the charge above a 10mm-thick steel plate using the aluminium-wire legs as a tripod, inserted an electric detonator into the Vulcan, and we retired to the hut, whose thick, double-glazed windows gave a good, if smeary, view of the sandpit. “If you write a nice, ingratiating article about me you can press the button,” said Alford.

I pressed the button.

There was a significant bang, making me glad of my ear defenders, but the plume went straight upwards. When we ventured out to the sandpit, Alford practically skipped up the side and fished out the metal plate, now with a clean-edged circular hole punched straight through it.

This practical demonstration had followed a whirlwind tour of the various Alford Technologies products and a brisk explanation of the theory of explosives. Alford clearly enjoys naming his creations: the Vulcan sits in his display alongside the Krakatoa and the Vesuvius, which can also be used for bomb disposal and demolition. The BootBanger is so called because “it bangs car boots” while the Van Trepan cuts a neat, round hole in the top of a larger vehicle. The Bottler is not only shaped like a bottle, but named for the Australian slang “that’s a bottler”, which Alford translates as “the cat’s whiskers”.

Even the Dioplex, a linear charge that creates a chopping blade, has a story attached: “I thought it was a do-it-yourself device, but I thought ‘do it oneself’ sounded better. So: ‘Do It Oneself Plastic Explosive’.”

One of the things a trip to the quarry teaches me is that the ways in which humans try to kill and maim each other are nothing if not inventive. The company sells a version of a Bangalore torpedo, an old invention used by Alford’s own father when he fought in the First World War. This is a modular tube you can push underneath barbed wire, blowing it apart to clear a path for infantry. A stronger version was needed, Alford says, because of the advent of razor wire. “Barbed wire was soft steel, designed to keep in cows. Razor wire was designed to cut you.” The new Alford Bangalore Blade torpedoes through the wire coils, severing them using four aluminium cutters and creating an unobstructed 10m route through.

The Breacher’s Boot is a door-shaped panel filled with water, used to punch through walls in hostage situations. “It gives a ‘kick’ to the wall, so bits of it will fall down. You don’t want to use shaped charges then,” he says. “If there’s a person on the other side of the wall, you’d cut them in half. And if you simply used a mass of high explosive, the concrete would fly almost horizontally.”

A similar idea lies behind the Alford Strip, a sticky rope of explosives and tamping material used in terror arrests, where the police would once have used a sledgehammer to open a door, but are now much more worried about booby traps. You run the 25mm- or 42mm-long plastic extrusion down a door, window or wall and then lay a length of det cord far enough away from it to put service personnel at a safer distance.

Down in the quarry, having punched through one square steel plate, we now try ten taped together versus a 40g load of explosives and a copper cone. The result: a 2m-high flash and the same clean hole – although the jet doesn’t make it through all ten plates. It stops at seven.

This isn’t an error: the shaped charges can use copper, water, aluminium or magnesium, depending on the force and space needed. Magnesium is incendiary; water and aluminium might be chosen because they lose velocity very quickly. You cut through what you want to cut through, without damaging either the structural integrity of the object surrounding it or innocent bystanders.

This precision is particularly important in demolition work. Last year, Alford Technologies took over the contract to break up Didcot Power Station, slicing through steel beams to dismantle the decommissioned building. It was called in after a terrible accident on 23 February 2016, when four workers employed by a respected firm, Coleman and Company, were killed while trying to lay charges inside the structure. “There was this crash – I looked over my shoulder and saw the boiler coming down,” one of the survivors, Mathew Mowat, told the Birmingham Mail. “We ran in self-preservation – then there was a loud bang and a massive cloud of dust, we couldn’t see much for a few minutes.”

It took months to recover the bodies of all four missing men, who had to be identified from dental records and tattoos.

***

Over an Eccles cake in the main office, Alford tells me about some of his other jobs, including cutting up sunken ships in the Persian Gulf during the “Tanker War” of the mid-1980s, between Iran and Iraq, and joining a mission to retrieve £40m in gold bars from HMS Edinburgh, which sank in 1942 off the coast of Norway. (It was carrying 4,570kg of Russian bullion destined for the western allies.) The ship had been designated a war grave to stop it being plundered, and an air of mystery hung over the whole salvage project. Alford was told not to mention that he was an explosives expert.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his work – and his anti-authoritarian streak – has caused conflict. “I’m doing things government departments ought to be doing,” he tells me in the car on the way to the quarry. “I’m in the anomalous position of someone who is quite admired, but also quite despised. Civil servants hate my guts.” When he was 40, he says, he asked for a formal job working with the department of defence, “and was told I was too old to have new ideas”. He set up Alford Technologies in 1985, and it now employs six people. The latest set of accounts at Companies House value the firm’s net worth at £2.3m.

Although Alford is scrupulously careful when handling explosives, he loathes health-and-safety culture. As we tramp round the quarry, he indicates a sign next to a pond, reading “Deep Water”, and tuts theatrically. He voted for Brexit to give the establishment a kick, not thinking it would actually happen.

It is a source of great chagrin that the government breathes down his neck, regulating what compounds he can keep and how he can keep them. “You have to have a licence for every substance,” he tells me in the car. “I’ve got them all. Well, it might be different if I wanted to go nuclear.”

 In 1996, he decided to make a stand against the pettifogging bureaucracy that, as he saw it, interfered with his work. Spooked by the thought of Irish republican terrorism, the regulators had insisted that he had to put a lock on his explosives store. “I told them that if the IRA really wanted to get my explosives, they would kidnap one of my family.” (He has two sons with his Japanese-born wife, Itsuko; the elder, 46-year-old Roland, now runs the business.) Besides which, he didn’t see why he should put an alarm on his few kilos of various explosives when the farmer next door had tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, a key ingredient in the IRA’s bomb-making.

The stand-off broke when his request to renew his explosives licence was turned down; soon after, the police came to raid his stores. He had tipped off a friendly journalist, however, and the visit was captured on camera and written up first in the local paper and then the Daily Mail, where Christopher Booker took up the cause of a Englishman’s inalienable right to keep high explosives in his shed. “I felt morally obliged to be prosecuted,” he says now.

The court case, documented in the newspaper clippings, sounds like a mixture of deadening legal procedure and high farce. At the magistrates’ court, Alford and a friend pursued and rearrested the next defendant, who tried to do a runner; when his case was kicked upwards to Swindon Crown Court, he turned up in an armoured Daimler Ferret, posing for photographs with his head poking out of the top, white hair tucked into a helmet. He was eventually charged with possessing explosives without a licence and fined £750, with £250 costs. The judge ordered the police to give him his licence back, but ticked him off for using the court system for political purposes.

Listening to this story, it becomes clearer why Alford never ended up in the warm embrace of an official government role. He offered his ideas to the Ministry of Defence, but he shows me a letter from April 1977, where an unlucky official reveals that he is “regarding your correspondence with diminishing enthusiasm”. Still, he is sanguine. “Most of my enemies have now gone to the laboratory in the sky, or retired,” he says. “I’m glad I didn’t work for them. Would I have fitted in? Probably not.” In any case, he has had some official recognition, receiving an OBE in 2015.

***

Alford’s work is used in war zones including Afghanistan, but also places like Cambodia, which are still riddled with unexploded ordnance from previous ground wars. Over the years, he has visited that country and Laos several times to practise new ways of dealing with old bombs. (The company produces a more affordable version of the Vulcan for non-military use.) He first went to Vietnam during the war; the last person, he says, to get a Japanese tourist visa into the country in the 1950s. The company’s brochures show smiling locals posing next to the sleeping monsters they have had to live alongside for decades.

But Iraq, too, is in dire need of methods to deal with cheap, homemade explosives. After Matt the Ex-Army Guy and Alford have demonstrated how to blow a door off its hinges, cut through a 50mm steel bar, and turn a fire extinguisher inside out – “that is unzipped in all known directions, it is a former IED,” says Alford, Pythonesquely – they show me the Bottler and the BootBanger.

They drag beer kegs into the boot of an old blue Nissan Almera, explaining that these were a favoured IRA device: who questions a few beer kegs in the street? First, they stick a Bottler between the front seats, showing how you would disrupt any electronics without setting the vehicle on fire – which would destroy forensic evidence. “They’d usually use a robot,” explains Matt. “And the robot usually leaves [the area], because they’re expensive.” A six-wheeler bomb disposal robot costs around £750,000.

We retreat again to the hut. I must be looking increasingly nervous, because Alford tries to reassure me about the building’s structural integrity: “If it tips over, it will take two weeks to get you out. But they’ll know where to find your body.”

As promised, the explosion is focused – and controlled, in the Alford-approved sense of the word. The windscreen is peeled back, lying on the roof, but the fuel tank didn’t ignite and the back windows are intact. “I know it might look like a mess,” says Matt, “but this would be classified as a result. You use a smaller bit of explosive to get rid of a larger one.”

Finally, it’s time for the big one. Matt slides the BootBanger, shaped like a suitcase, under the back end of the car. It has a curved sheet of 400g of plastic explosive through the middle, sandwiched by water on both sides and encased in nondescript grey plastic.

Now this is a bigger bang. I suddenly see the point of all those “Blasting!” warning signs that surround the quarry. If you drove past and heard this, you’d think the Russians had invaded. As an orange-red flame flashes and a deep, throaty boom fills the quarry, the beer kegs are fired out of the back of the car, pinwheeling 20 feet in the air and coming to rest yards away. Debris rains down on the roof of the hut. I swear I can hear the plinking sound of metal cooling. The car is now missing its back windscreen, and is, it’s fair to say, probably never going to pass another MOT. Nevertheless, it is still recognisably car-shaped; the skeleton is undisturbed.

Unfazed, Alford hurries to the car, and plucks a piece of paper from the boot, clearly left there by a previous owner. It is undamaged.

And then it’s time to rejoin the real world. As he drives me back to Bath, I ask Alford what it feels like to do what he does. He has saved possibly hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. “Yes, but in an already over-populated world,” he sighs.

I know he doesn’t mean it callously; he just doesn’t want credit for what, in his eyes, is barely a job at all. The schoolboy who wanted to make a bigger bang got his wish. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix