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A barrier to investment

Comment

This week's calls by the Association of British Insurers for another £8bn to be invested immediately in flood defences highlights the chronic and pathetic state of the UK's infrastructure.

Chronic and pathetic because we have been forced by an increasing socially detached government down an ever-spiralling process of 'crying wolf'.

Coming on top of last week's call by Environment Agency chief executive Barbara Young for spending on flood defences to be doubled to £1bn a year immediately and the ICE's State of the Nation report, which also called for more flood protection investment, there can be little doubt that there is something in the issue.

After all, increased flood risk caused by rising sea levels and climate change is not a new concept. The potential risks are well known, as is the potential loss to the economy and threat to life.

And if warning signs are needed then surely the frequency and scale of the Thames Barriers' usage must at least provide some quantitative evidence to back up the anecdotes.

But strangely not even the devastation seen in New Orleans last year prompted Treasury civil servants to put together a sensible cost-risk-benet analysis to justify doing anything about the issue.

When it comes to managing our vital civil infrastructure, we know that if we simply plan for what we know today we will quickly be found wanting - it will fail before we expect and more catastrophically.

Whether managing ood defences or roads, railways, water supplies or power distribution, rising demand will quickly swamp our infrastructure.

Unless we think radically about what will be needed by our customers, communities and stake-holders in the future, and then plan infrastructure that exceeds their needs, we will fail.

So why does no one in government appear to be listening?

Why are we working so hard to eke out the last bit of value from every pound spent on the nation's realm yet still having so many conversations about the folly of short-term thinking on infrastructure maintenance and renewal?

To be blunt, why must we wait for a major disaster to happen, be it a flood, a blackout or a crash, before a case for investment can be made?

Take the railways - the only infrastructure sector reaping the reward of the public purse.

Strangely, railways have apparently overtaken farmers as the biggest consumers of public cash in the European Union.

This has not always been the case. Sadly it took a few train crashes to switch Treasury thinking onto the economic bene ts of a decent modern railway network - not a particularly positive model to follow, but we are now again leaders in the field.

There will never be enough money to do everything that we want in precisely the way that we want to do it. But somehow we have to find a way to make the case for public investment without having to rely on corpses and devastated lives to make the case for us.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor.

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