Engineering versus Politics

“Engineering versus Politics”
by Peter Black Esq.

This lecture, was delivered as usual at the Worthing Central Library. The President was in the chair. He apologised for a delay in starting, due to the shortcomings of the Library staff in relation to the slide projector. Peter Black had been a very active political leader in the development of Londons infrastructure and services – with particular relationship with the Thames.

Peter Black said that he was not formally trained as an engineer and was never a professional nor a national politician. On the outbreak of war in 1939 he tried to enter the army but failed for medical reasons. He joined Wimpey for three weeks but stayed for eight years working on aerodrome runways, pipelines etc. This provided excellent experience in the practice of engineering projects and having been slightly interested in politics whilst at school, and living in Battersea Park where political activity was strong, he helped in the 1945 elections. In 1949 he gained a seat on Middlesex County Council. Being rather more than usually vocal and in a great hurry to put the world to right he was soon appointed Chairman of West Middlesex Main Drainage Committee – equivalent to being sent to Siberia as the image of the subject was mundane, money for it was in short supply and there were “no votes in sewerage”. He made his mark early and within a year was Deputy Leader of Middlesex County Council.

The well known Mogden sewage plant was under development at that time. It was the first large regional plant, of 200 acres extent catering for 2.5 million people, designed to replace a number of small local plants and it was the national leader in the new activated sludge process, as opposed to the more usual sewage farms. After the destructive years of warfare, it was now the era of the engineer; new men and new skills were about and a fine time was had by all with a wonderful spirit of enthusiasm for such regional projects.

When detergents came into widespread use Mogden was liable, on Mondays, to become blanketted in ten to fifteen feet of foam. As this became a major nuisance in the area more money was readily available to cure the problem and the plant was refurbished.

At this point in the lecture some further difficulties developed with the slide projector and the lights resulting in a degree of amusing repartee disclosing further the speakers sense of humour and tolerance.

Continuing his story, there was in the early 1960’s the formation of the Greater London Council, of which Peter Black was a member throughout it’s life and it’s Chairman in 1970, which merged the works of Middlesex County Council, London County Council and urban parts of Surrey, Essex, etc. Engineering wise this was undoubtedly a good thing in that one body was now co-ordinating the control of all the liquid wastes of the capital city. Politicians were not so happy, some deplored the demise of historic institutions and the loss of their ‘sacred’ rights. Conservationists were now on the march with their eyes on the filthy state of the Thames – devoid of aquatic life in its tidal section. There had been three authorities responsible – the Thames Conservancy Board, the Port of London Authority and the G.L.C. The newly formed Thames Water Authority chaired by Peter Black took over the Thames Conservancy Board and the P.L.A. and jointly with the G.L.C. set up the Pollution Control Committee chaired by Lord Nugent to investigate and report on the state of the Thames. The imput of sewage and industrial wastes was steadily reduced by offending parties at their own expense to within limits set by the Rivers Pollution Act 1957 and gradually river life returned. In 1974 the first live salmon was caught and now there are 105 species of fish in the tidal stretches of the river.

Although the water now ‘looks’ muddy, in reality it is safe and clean; the river has an earth bottom and the two tides per day stir it up so it can never look like a Spey, Tay or Tees.

In the past for supplies of clean water the G.L.C. had to keep pace with the steadily increasing demand – domestic and industrial. The politicians in theory controlled affairs but in practice the engineers always got the money for the plans they developed. However, in one respect they were persuaded to change; having inherited a dread of possible epidemics, such as Croydon had in the last century, of typhoid or cholera, they had thoroughly fenced off all reservoir areas to avoid body contact with the water. Now scientists and politicians questioned the logic and when the vast new Queen Mother Reservoir was built at Datchett by the T.W.A. total access by the public in daylight hours was allowed for the enjoyment of boating, fishing, picnics etc. but not swimming or bathing.

As regards solid waste disposal each Borough had previously collected and disposed of its own refuse and the result was the existence of hundreds of tatty sorting sheds, badly controlled tips, open burnings and inefficient transport to which ever tip happened to be cheapest at the time. Such tips were usually in the neighbouring counties because the wet gravel pits of the Thames area were unsuitable. This all amounted to an engineers nightmare and Dickensian working conditions. When the G.L.C. took over it’s overall plan was to leave the Boroughs to collect refuse, using small vehicles and short runs, and to deliver it to G.L.C. transfer stations. Here modern equipment packed the refuse into containers avoiding spillage, and large G.L.C. vehicles, or barges or British Rail trains would carry the containers to the disposal sites. A total of 4| million tonnes per year is disposed of – some in Bedfordshire brickyard pits, some in Essex marshes. The rail transfer station was in Peter Black’s own constituency and it is indicative- of his powers of persuasion that he carried this through and achieved a greater vote at the next election.

Incineration of refuse is more expensive than tipping but a major plant was built at Edmonton which has operated well. It is landscaped and produces electricity valued at £4.5 million per annum from the heat of the furnaces.

After engineers have chosen the best site for rubbish disposal they call on the politicians to persuade the local population to accept the scheme. This requires patience, and thoughtfulness in explaining how the local tips would be properly managed and developed, with effective control of traffic, noise, smell etc. and would include the local refuse as well. After a number of years with reclamation the community would possess a recreation ground, farmland, or a golf course all landscaped etc. – all “for free”.

The conflict between engineering and politics is well illustrated by the congested road traffic situation in London. The solution proposed was the square ‘box’ of near motorway standard roads around central London with connecting roads to county boundaries. Engineers knew this was the answer and there were no major engineering problems but the scheme was dropped for political reasons – it required demolition of over 15,000 homes. Such action is understandable on human and social grounds but the long term public interest could well have been better served if the engineers solution had been adopted.

The Thames Barrier, for which the speaker was responsible, was another example of G.L.C, project on which engineers and politicians worked together to avert the disaster that could have occurred if a high surge tide had come before the Barrier was completed. It is possible that in that event London could never have recovered fully. The Barrier was the subject of the 1984 Cooch Lecture.

The G.L.C. was abolished on March 31st, 1986. Peter Black had been responsible politically for many fine engineering achievements facilitated by having a single body in overall control and he stressed that the engineering and technical departments were superb.

In the discussion Mark Markwell asked how the U.K. compared with other countries to be told we were probably better at compromising; J. Gurney regretted there were only six engineers in Parliament but Peter Black said he would not like the job of M.P. – the pay was poor, the working conditions bad but agreed more practical people were needed and fewer barristers; Brian Haynes asked about methane gas recovery to learn that £1.25 million p.a. net profit was obtained from £7 million investment; in answer to Don Plyer’s reference to the recent pollution of the Rhine the speaker said it was a pity the Swiss had been responsible as their record was good – sewage was the worst offender. Messrs Blundstone and Hammond also contributed.
The Chairman apologised to the Speaker for the projector problems at the start and asked Tom Berrie to express our thanks.
Tom thanked Peter Black for the good natured way he overcame the early obstacles and for the interesting and humorous way he had delivered the lecture. We could sea. how Peter Black had used his common- sense practical approach to obtain decisions whilst sticking to proper engineering.. All present showed their appreciation.