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Casting the die

This week’s European and local elections take place under the cloud of the MPs’ expenses scandal. With a General Election guaranteed to follow within 364 days, what are the political issues exercising engineers as this crucial time? Ed Owen reports.

This week’s European and local elections have garnered more media attention than is normal for such polls, preceded as they have been by the MPs’ expenses scandal. However, duck ponds, moats and dog food are far from engineers’ minds when considering these elections and next year’s General Election.

Contractors and consultants are struggling in the current economic climate and the protective bubble of public sector work is expected to burst in 2011 following an expected post-General Election government spending cut.

“Our open border policies and EU membership have damaged our ability to change and direct investment. They have certainly cost us money and now represent a burden.”

Jonathan Goring, Capita Symonds

For British construction executives and engineers the European elections debate will centre on whether the European Union (EU) is good for their businesses.

Arup group chairman Philip Dilley says the EU has been good for UK civils firms. In contrast Capita Symonds’ chief executive Jonathan Goring claims excessive immigration could hamper investment.

“From a pure UK perspective, I believe our open border policies and EU membership have damaged our ability to change and direct investment,” says Goring.

“They have certainly cost us money and now represent a burden and dent national debt.

When employment reaches 2.5M, people will have a right to ask why we have allowed so many UK jobs to be taken by foreign immigrants. I am the grandson of an immigrant and have reason to be grateful, but we have gone too far and it will hamper our competitiveness.”

The main event − a General Election

For most, however, this week’s elections are a sideshow to the main event − a General Election which must take place by 3 June 2010.

Issues likely to influence engineers’ votes range from strategic approaches to infrastructure to project-specific support.

A recent poll on NCE’s website showed that most respondents − 79.4% − indicated they would vote against a party that cancelled Crossrail. Neither of the main political parties have yet said they would scrap the £15.9bn mega-project, but the Conservatives have admitted that all projects would be subject to review (NCE 14 May).

“The task facing government is to provide more for less in terms of public services.”

Rosemary Beales, Civil Engineers Contractors Association

The government is under pressure to reduce public sector borrowing; credit rating service Standard & Poor’s warned last week that politicians must set out clear measures to reduce public debt or face the prospect of having the UK’s AAA credit rating downgraded. This would make public borrowing more expensive as the UK would be regarded as a less reliable borrower.

“The party that prevails at the next General Election will have to take on two major tasks simultaneously,” says Civil Engineers Contractors Association director Rosemary Beales.

“Firstly it will need to restore the confidence of voters. Secondly, of equal importance, will be to get the public finances under control. All indications point to a future in which austerity is likely to colour the prevailing mood and the task facing government is to provide more for less in terms of public services.”

Long-term benefits of infrastructure

However, ICE director general Tom Foulkes says whichever party wins the next General Election, it should not forsake the long-term benefits of essential infrastructure for short-term economic gains.

“It’s extremely important that whoever is in power after the next election doesn’t drop the ball on the good work that is underway to maintain and develop our national infrastructure,” says Foulkes.

“Despite the obvious limitations the economic climate presents, it is crucial the new government safeguards current infrastructure projects, such as Crossrail and the London Tideway sewage tunnels, and continues to plan for the future, as continued investment in the national infrastructure is key to ensuring the UK fully benefits when the global economy recovers.”

Goring agrees that current spending commitments such as Crossrail must be safe from cutbacks.

Dilley, conversely, says he would support any party making cutbacks to reduce the record levels of debt.

“We can’t leave this [public sector debt] to our children,” he says.

Best for civil engineers

So which party best offers the best opportunities for civil engineers? Dilley says: “There are many sustainable infrastructure needs in the UK in energy, water and transport. And these will need to be delivered through public-private sector collaboration. Both main parties are capable of this.

“To me this is more a question of individuals rather than parties. For example High Speed 1 could not have happened without the support of Michael Heseltine initially, followed by John Prescott. Today [transport secretary] Lord Adonis and [opposition transport spokesman] Theresa Villiers are both impressive supporters of intelligent infrastructure.”

“If government engages the industry in a meaningful dialogue, it might be pleasantly surprised at how much the industry can do to help.”

Rosemary Beales, Civil Engineers Contractors Association

Goring is only slightly more partisan. “It is a party’s responsibility to ensure the investment stacks up, but in the past the Conservatives have been the profession’s greatest supporters overseas, whereas investment will be much more dependent on the exchequer,” he says.

Beales says the issue is about planning public spending more effectively. “The next government must adopt a policy of planning investment in infrastructure on a long-term basis, giving the sector clear guidance on what will be spent, what will be built and when construction will take place.”

“If government retains the same old make do and mend approach, it will not maximise the potential value for taxpayers’ money.

“If it engages the industry in a meaningful dialogue, it might be pleasantly surprised at how much the industry can do to help.”

The last word

But the last word is left to Foulkes, and his ultimate must-have list: “The development of the new Infrastructure Planning Commission and the National Policy Statements. We should also examine if a UK version of President Obama’s proposed National Infrastructure Bank, is the best way to meet the potential shortfall in public and private investment.

“It is also crucial that a new government follows through on the plan to appoint a chief construction officer to improve the co-ordination of the procurement of major projects and achieve value for money, as well as a new single point of authority to oversee the protection of the nation’s infrastructure against civil emergencies and terrorist threats.

“Overall, government focus must be on key challenges such as the ever present issue of global climate change and, closer to home, the potential energy crunch in the UK. Development of low carbon technologies should be prioritised, as these will help to combat possible energy shortfalls in future as well as helping to meet goals of lowering carbon emissions.”

Where the parties stand

ProgrammeLabourConsLib Dem
Crossrail?
Road buildingXX
New nuclearX
AirportsXX
High speed rail

Readers' comments (1)

  • When we are heading for a recession with massive job losses, and we are already suffering a massive balance of payments deficit, the only sensible course is to build infrastructure which both maximises employment creation, and minimises our energy import bill ie renewable energy

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