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Brown and the boom

Comment

Party politics aside, the civil engineering profession really needs Chancellor Gordon Brown's early transition to the top job at 10 Downing Street.

Regardless of what kind of prime minister you think he will make, that fact is that Brown's ascension to power will be the best and most realistic hope that we have of securing a decision in 2007 for vital future infrastructure investment.

Sitting comfortably in 2006 it was perhaps easy to talk about the booming prospects for civil engineering in 2007 and beyond. But of course, in the cold, hard reality of January, life is somewhat different.

Certainly the indications for a great year are there. Just look at the calendar of events and predictions set out for the next 12 months in this week's cover feature - the scale of infrastructure activities and the importance of decisions that are planned is huge and there are big projects either with a green light or close to getting one.

It is clear that both the public and the government appreciates the contribution that proper investment in infrastructure - be it for transport, housing, water supply, energy generation or flood control - can make to the improvement of society.

Yet as we also know, the political realities of infrastructure investment go beyond simple equations of need. With Brown just moments away from his dream job, Tony Blair is unlikely to take the decisions on infrastructure funding needed to bring plans to life. These will surely be reserved for Brown and his trusty chancellor-inwaiting Alistair Darling.

Which is good news in the sense that Brown, and particularly Darling, have a good grasp of the role that infrastructure plays in underpinning the economy. They should make excellent allies for the profession.

Years in charge of transport give Darling a great understanding of the arguments and his current job at the Department for Trade & Industry gives him first-hand experience of the economics of balancing energy supply with climate change mitigation.

That said, Brown will face a number of serious and competing challenges if he is to ensure that he makes it to a fourth Labour term of government. He will inherit some very real vote sensitive debates on the NHS, on Iraq, and on the UK's education system. He will have to work extremely hard to show the electorate that he is not only different from Tony Blair but better than him and better than David Cameron.

And his detailed knowledge of the country's nances mean that he will be loath to allow his new chancellor to play fast and free with the public accounts, and be aware that the cash isn't really there to spend.

So 250 years after Thomas Telford's birth, we must follow his example and make 2007 the year for serious political lobbying by the engineering profession. We must ensure that Brown and Darling know how we can help them and convince them to invest in infrastructure.

Such lobbying can work - as Mark Stevens, the engineer featured in this week's Names and Faces, highlights. Here was an engineer who spotted the need for vital funding on local road maintenance, argued the case, won support and got the cash.

His example must be followed if we are to realise 2007's boom potential and secure not just workload for ourselves but real improvement in infrastructure services to the public.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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