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Comment | A big Autumn for infrastructure looms

Mark Hansford

So which will it be? The infrastructure Autumn? Or the Autumn of infrastructure?

This Autumn promises to be one of seismic importance to civil engineers and civil engineering business. A raft of government announcements around major infrastructure projects are promised; announcements that will either serve to give the industry a major boost or, alternatively, raise serious causes for concern.

The big decisions are of course around Hinkley Point C and Heathrow/Gatwick. Promises have been made for a decision sometime this Autumn, but exactly when is unclear.

Grimshaw heathrow

Heathrow concept design

Source: Heathrow Airports Limited

Big decisions around Heathrow and Hinkley loom

But it is not just the futures of those two mega projects that hang in the balance. We are also set to get the first indications on what Brexit means to the economy in the Autumn Statement and, from that, the effect of any economic turbulence on planned major spends in highways, rail and flood defence.

Throughout this summer’s results season, major civils consultants and contractors have been very cagey on what they are expecting. All have made positive noises, but all have ominously warned of having put contingency plans in place should things not go as we would like.

Party conference season later this month will be unusually busy and the civils sector will undoubtedly be eager to be visible and noisy in pushing the case for infrastructure. But it is hard for all but the noisiest to get a look in in the bear pit of a party conference.

So it may be that the National Needs Assessment launch, slated for mid-October back in the calm of Great George Street, is a better place to start the infrastructure offensive. Hopefully the prime minister can hold fire until then.

Because this ICE and Sir John Armitt-led work could be – could be - very influential. The assessment is a cross-sector policy review of the UK’s national economic infrastructure needs to 2050. Coordinated by the ICE, it covers energy, transport, communications, housing, water, waste and flooding – so far more comprehensive a remit than the National Infrastructure Commission (which was told to ignore aviation in the south east and energy).

The comprehensive nature of the remit is significant as it is expected (or hoped?) that its findings will be fed into the government-backed National Infrastructure Commission’s National Infrastructure Assessment.

The ICE has approached the task of co-ordinating the Needs Assessment with a rigor.

A call for evidence yielded more than 50 submissions and a raft of strategic options have been tested using modelling devised by the UK Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium, a research group featuring the UK’s biggest civil engineering consultants, contractors and clients.

So this promising to be a fact-based assessment. An assessment that will challenge some thinking and almost certainly trigger debate at all levels about which are the right schemes to prioritise.

And that’s good, because there is a sense that different arguments, tapping into different emotions, are what is needed. Basic Keynesian arguments that say spending on infrastructure stimulates the economy are interesting, but does the current spend (or planned spend) really make an impact here? Crossrail, Europe’s largest infrastructure project, only managed to spend £2bn a year at peak – and fair bit of that went straight overseas. There are suggestions that it’s more like £20bn a year that is needed to have a Keynesian effect.

So we need more. Handily, there is more. Because it is also very easy to forget the value on local communities and economies of infrastructure spending, as voices promoting these projects can get drowned out in the sea of noise around the big stuff.

The British Construction Industry Awards have a role here. This year’s winners will be announced a week ahead of the Needs Assessment and it’s a particularly important opportunity to smash home the reasons why infrastructure investment is so important across the UK. Our shortlisted projects this year are incredible, and every one – big or small – is a cast-iron reason why investing in infrastructure delivers for communities and societies at large.

They are also great examples of on-time, on-budget delivery – reassurance, if needed, that the industry is a safe pair of hands for government expenditure.

We do need better reasons, more fact-based reasons for investing. Thing is, they are emerging. So hopefully they can emerge in time and make this the Infrastructure Autumn – and not the Autumn of infrastructure.

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