A desirable holiday destination provides the backdrop for G7 talks. But Richard Fish, past chair of ICE South West, reflects on the real Cornwall and its civil engineering challenges.
I’ve always considered myself lucky to live and work in Cornwall. I joined the county council as chief bridge engineer in the late 1980s when our emphasis was on building bypasses and dualling the A30. I later spent seven years as director of planning and transportation, which included responsibility for economic development, before leaving the public sector in 2009.
The decline of Cornwall’s economy
Cornwall has a unique industrial and engineering heritage. Arguably it was where the industrial revolution started, as so many raw materials could be won from its natural resources.
Hard rock mining for tin and other metals led to developments in pumps and steam engines that migrated across the country. The mining legacy and wealth is reflected in its UNESCO World Heritage site status and in the many grandiose buildings still standing.
But the demise of mining, mainly due to falling tin prices, combined with pressures on the other two significant industries – fishing and farming – meant that Cornwall’s prosperity took a dive in the last few decades of the 20th century.
And because its economy had been historically combined with a more affluent Devon, this was never really noticed. But once the two were separated under the Nomenclature of Territorial Units for statistics (NUTS) 2 review in the 1990s, Cornwall was recognised as one of the EU’s most deprived regions and qualified for additional funding.
The resultant funding streams (almost £1bn in total) have been in place for most of this century and there are now many tangible benefits, including a university specialising in sustainability, a good number of high-tech businesses, and a healthy renewable energy sector taking advantage of our southerly latitude and windy weather.
With over 300 miles of stunning coastline, Cornwall has always been an attractive holiday destination, making tourism a vital (but unsustainable) part of a still fragile economy.
Unfortunately, as well as the more traditional bucket and spade variety, for those that can afford them, holiday homes have been seen as a must-have for the upper-middle class.
And the impact pushes up house prices. Factor in Covid and post-Covid effects, and we now see houses being sold without even being viewed and almost exclusively to non-locals. Worse still is that some see buying property in Cornwall as an 'investment'. Reports using the latest ONS data reveal that the median house price is now more than eight times the median salary.
So, while homes are unaffordable, the smaller village communities lose not only the local families but also their amenities: the pub, the village shop and the school become unsustainable. And in some communities, levels of poverty and deprivation are as low as anywhere in the UK.
Weather, climate and resilience
With a resident population of just over half a million, Cornwall can just about manage. But the general demographic of the population shows an average age above the UK norm with consequential heavy demands on health, social care and public transport provision.
Pressures increase dramatically each summer when the population increases by 50% in the school holidays. We all dread the wet Wednesday in August syndrome when the beaches will be empty and our urban centres literally become gridlocked.
Now that the evidence of climate change is starting to become obvious, an additional threat is emerging for our coastal communities as sea levels rise.
Combinations of high spring tides, a south westerly wind and deep areas of low pressure already lead to frequent major flooding in towns such as Fowey and Looe, and this will only get worse.
And Cornwall has also had its fair share of fluvial flooding events following intense localised rainfall – Boscastle in 2004 and Coverack in 2017; both during the summer holiday period.
Although obvious, it’s worth stating that Cornwall is at the end of a long peninsula. This means our transport links with the rest of the region, let alone the rest of the country, are tenuous and vulnerable and can soon grind to a halt after a minor accident on the M5 or A30 or a broken down train, and either of these anywhere from Taunton westwards.
Civil engineers need to be 'on the attack'
So how does all of this relate to civil engineers? Firstly, let’s remember that the ICE is a charity and everything a charity does has to be for the public good.
While we may concentrate on the engineering, we must always be aware of the bigger picture and the wider economic and social consequences of our projects.
I believe that the way to achieve this is by engineers making themselves visible, understanding the need and engaging with all stakeholders and the wider community. With some regret, in the early part of my career, I know I was guilty of engineering “to” people, rather than “for” them.
In terms of carbon and climate in Cornwall (and everywhere), we must be on the attack - working to reduce greenhouse emissions, and on the defence – fighting against whatever the climate emergency throws at us. That to me is what defines our profession – the ability to solve problems. And both attack and defence will require innovative solutions and I know that civil engineers have that skillset as part of our DNA.
But stuff happens. As well as that strategic level, engineers will also need to be on hand to work through the night, bolstering flood defences and to be part of recovery operations. I mentioned the extreme flooding at Boscastle and Coverack; there were many civil engineers who were the visible heroes in the aftermath of those events.
Will the G7 leaders see any of the real Cornwall?
So, while climate change (especially with COP 26 later this year) and Covid will undoubtedly be on the G7 agenda, will they see the effects of either, as they gaze out over the beautiful St Ives Bay? Will they see any of the real Cornwall? Or just the picture postcard view?
The G7 will be over in the blink of an eye, and likely to be remembered for protests and photoshoots. But will it also be the opportunity to showcase Cornwall to the world as we all might hope? Will there be a lasting legacy? Watch this space…
One thing is certain: Cornwall’s engineers and engineering legacy have made the county what it is now, and will undoubtedly also shape its future.