Wales (1)

Writing this article is done knowing that I have a family connection to the building of the dams.  My grandmother was born in the navies village in 1900 and her grandmother ran a lodging house for the workers assisted by her mother. 

The valley is a thing of beauty and the dams now look just as much part of the scenic beauty as the rolling high hills and winding roads. Obviously at one-time nature prevailed and the valleys would have been small settlements, farm and wood land with very people surviving month to month if not day to day.  The number of permanent residents today is probably not too dissimilar as to those of 120 years ago.

The reason for the article is to consider whether the project nature and size is something that today we could deliver as a country, and should we? With Crossrail and HS2 as multi-billion-pound infrastructure projects commenced or in the pipeline the delivery of these are machine intensive and new technology plays a major part in their delivery.  One thing that always astounds me is the Victorian civil engineers used the natural surroundings to achieve truly amazing results.  Elan Valley was a construction project that was required to improve the lives and health of the residents of Birmingham bringing much needed fresh water to the city which ultimately supported the growth brought on by the industrial revolution but allowed continued expansion.

The Elan Valley project cost £6M over hundred years ago which means that at today’s value it would be around the £700M level. If considering the distance from Elan Valley to Birmingham as just over 70 miles, it is a nice easy calculation of £10M per mile of the adjusted inflationary cost today. If you then consider the estimated cost of HS2 £55bn then at a per mile it is over £400M but this could be closer to the £500M with recent cost estimates.  These costs are for the London to Birmingham section only. 

Employment is also another factor with some of the best economic minds saying that when in recession national capital projects are the way forward, i.e. build your way out of recession.  The Elan Valley dam project employed around 50,000 men.  HS2 talks of creating jobs but the actual labour required is a fraction of the workforce needed 120 years ago.  So now, building out of recession is the perceived benefit of job creation once the infrastructure is complete.  As for the Elan Valley project how many jobs were created in Birmingham because fresh, clean water was being brought to the city? Guessing significantly more than the 25,000 estimated from HS2.

The third point to consider is the time to build. The Valleys Project was fundamentally started and completed in 8-years.  HS2 has an initial first phase build of 13 years which is significantly higher and obviously any project will be impacted by delays, cost increases and new deliverables. So the actual might be somewhat different to the planned.

So, if we stick to the comparison of the two projects I think the answer is no we can’t deliver sizeable infrastructure projects in the same way.  There will be some beneficial differences in relation to safety and wellbeing of the workers, fair pay and living conditions but it will always leave a question of, “could we deliver the same project more cost effectively?”

Returning to Elan Valley though I think there are many other questions that are raised about the use of nature to fuel and serve our country looking forward.  The depletion of hydrocarbons as fossil fuels and the actual true return of wind power generation and its long-term effectiveness. It raises the question on the use of hydroelectric as a more economic and a logistical fuel source.  It also has the question of mining and/or wind farms versus dams based on the visual impact on the landscape for differing projects.  We often hear the argument of greater house building is required and it should be affordable, and investment made away from the capital making a northern powerhouse.  If these agendas are to be followed through then it is not the movement of people that becomes the issue it is the utilities, infrastructure and the economic opportunities required that will take Britain forward.

Elan Valley is phenomenal in terms of its natural beauty, wildlife and importantly now the dams.  The project within 10 years of its completion was blending back in with nature and has protected commercialisation of an area of outstanding natural beauty.

We honestly need to look back and learn lessons from our Victorian ancestors and start planning long term on how we fuel and support the UK as a whole, both from an economic perspective but also from a natural and cultural perspective.  Learning to work with nature and not against it, making some tough decisions along the way, but ones that can be on a par with the long-term blend of infrastructure and nature which is Elan Valley.

Elan Valley, a wonderful place for so many reasons!

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