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Brown sounds positive - but check the detail

Comment

Is Chancellor Gordon Brown getting the message about the vital need for proper and sustained investment to create a decent modern transport infrastructure for the UK? Well, don't hold your breath just yet.

Brown's Budget speech last Wednesday in the House of Commons sounded pretty unequivocal in its commitment to transport spending. 'It is critical to the economy to press ahead with investments in our infrastructure, ' he said. 'We should not return to the old stop-go in spending which left hundreds of road projects planned but never completed, ' he added.

He went further: 'The spending review will provide for real terms growth in transport funding, not for cuts, ' he said.

But Brown's encouraging statement fell short of any detail - we will have to wait until July's comprehensive spending review for that. As a result we are no nearer to knowing just how his apparent commitment to transport spending will translate itself into holes in the ground.

The problem remains that we still lack firm commitment to a huge number of really important schemes. For all its logic, Brown's statement simply does not rule out postponement or project delay, and it does not rule out, say, investing only in the roads or only in the railways.

So NCE has no plans to bask in the glory of a Stop the Transport Cuts campaign victory quite yet. On the contrary. Now is the time to start working much harder. The fact that Brown made reference to transport spending in relation to his comprehensive spending review next July surely means he realises at last that there are strong arguments for transport spending, as well for health and education.

But on the assumption that this government is still unsure or pressured about the conflicting priorities, we must plough on to help steer its path towards the right infrastructure solutions. After all, with public sector borrowing still 7% below his stated maximum 40% of the national income, Brown has the flexibility to spend more.

The good news is that the Chancellor does seem to understand that science and engineering can actually help his cause by delivering a return on investment.

'I have no doubt that the nations that will succeed long term will be the nations that make the long term choice to invest in the drivers of future prosperity - education, science and enterprise, ' he said last week. 'Now is exactly the right time to raise investment in British science and British education.'

This is the sort of statement that we engineers must seize upon immediately. We must rush directly to the Treasury with our plans to overhaul and transform the grassroots of the profession, our plans to capture, nurture and train the young engineers and technicians of the future and our plans to boost investment in research and development.

Yet despite Brown's soundbite commitment to 'growth in transport spending' and 'British science and British education' last week, there is certainly no real sign that we are out of the woods. We have a long way to go over the next three months if we are to convert his words today into the spending review reality we desire in July.

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