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Brown: the new black?


The more you look at the detail of Gordon Brown's recent government appointments, the more positives emerge for construction.

This Monday's announcement by Hilary Benn, the brand new environment secretary, for example, of a £200M increase in the amount spent on flood defences to £800M a year by 2011 is a very good start.

As I said in this column last week: 'An extra couple of hundred million a year would create a properly funded flood defence policy and would clearly make very good financial sense.' It seems Benn understands that if we want, as a nation, to be better protected from the increasing threat of flooding that climate change and the need to build in increasingly marginal areas brings, then we need to invest in the infrastructure.

'The government has always recognised the need to spend more on flood defence with changes in climate, ' said Benn as he announced the increase.

And while I am sure that his predecessor did recognise this fact, the difference this week is that recognition was actually (allowed by the Treasury to be) turned into a real cash pledge.

Yes the amount spent on flood defence has risen over the last decade and yes we will have to wait until 2010/11 for this new cash to kick in. But this is a welcome new slug of cash and comes at the right time.

We have long been optimistic about the prospect of former transport secretary Alistair Darling moving into No. 11 Downing Street. And now the reality is with us, it is increasingly clear that civil engineering should have an ally at the highest level in Whitehall.

For the last seven years he has knuckled down and quietly got on with the job of delivering UK transport to Gordon Brown's Treasury specication.

The result is that he understands how a decent modern transport infrastructure can drive economic growth and what it really costs to create it.

We cannot of course expect him to suddenly land at the Treasury and start writing cheques for all the transport projects that he couldn't get past Brown's beady eye. Life, even in the Westminster village, isn't quite that simple.

But he will be acutely aware that even small amounts of Treasury support for infrastructure projects can lever in the vital private sector support to get them off the starting blocks.

And Ruth Kelly, the new transport secretary, should know how to win this support. While she may not have shone while in charge of education or, most recently, communities and local government, Kelly was a rising star as chief secretary to the Treasury and will remain well connected.

Then there's the appointment of Steven Timms as construction minister. The fact that he reports directly to a secretary of state certainly shows the role has been elevated by Brown's government.

There is however one glaring anomaly that still has to be recti , namely the failure to appoint any true civil engineering or construction champion to the new Business Council for Britain.

Agreed the 15 incumbents will no doubt speak up with passion about the need to drive investment into the UK's transport, communications and energy infrastructure. To have someone on the inside with real expert knowledge of the engineering behind infrastructure could really help to bring greater understanding by government of the industry's needs.

But hold tight. Its still early days for the Brown era.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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