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Comment | Three Brexit-beating things the industry must do now

Mark Hansford

So. Brexit. Lots of emotions are sweeping around our industry right now, but the over-riding one is fear. What can we do about it?

There is no getting away from it: the industry is really worried.

It certainly is: our online poll tells us that 67% of respondents think the referendum result will be bad for civil engineering.

You can see why. Network Rail had already scaled back its aspirations; Transport for London’s projects – big and small – were already being reviewed; and Hinkley was already doubtful.

Then came 23 June and the political maelstrom it has created. Heathrow has lost its big supporter in prime minister David Cameron (and looks set to gain a massive opponent in Theresa May); a recession looms and Highways England is looking anxiously at its easily cuttable budgets. To top it all off, the National Audit Office has supplied anyone looking for an excuse to delay High Speed 2 with evidence that the scheme is running late and looking iffy on costs.

Brexit 3x2

Brexit 3x2

But the government – or at least transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin (and at least while he remains in the post) – is talking positively about the role of infrastructure investment in driving the economy.

“As we address the future and the consequences of our vote to leave the European Union, one thing is certain; investment in the long-term infrastructure we need has become more important, not less,” McLoughlin told an infrastructure summit last week.

Government (or at least the current government) does see infrastructure projects as a means to stimulate the economy – much as it saw it in the all-too-recent recession. At the summit, McLoughlin recalled chancellor George Osborne’s decision back in 2010 not to cancel Crossrail, despite advice that the money would be better spent paying down the national debt. It went ahead as part of a fiscal stimulus that also eventually resulted in money thrown at a raft of “shovel ready” highways schemes. Indeed, the problem there was that there weren’t enough shovel ready schemes on which to spend the cash quickly enough.

So there are reasons to be positive and concerted action is important. And it is great to see all the engineering institutions and trade bodies uniting around the Royal Academy of Engineering to drive engineering’s response. We are in talks with the Academy about how New Civil Engineer can support that effort.

But there is no time to wait, and there are probably three things that industry must do right now.

The first is to get behind High Speed 2 in a way that it has not managed to do so far; both by being universally enthusiastic about it and also by giving real confidence about delivery by showing what has been achieved elsewhere on other projects (high speed or otherwise).

The second is probably to get behind Gatwick. It’s less politically challenged than Heathrow; it’s less technically challenged too (that is, there is no need to put the 10 lanes of the M25 in a tunnel and shift one of Britain’s biggest energy from waste plants); and it is something that could be got on with pretty quickly – which sounds good right now.

And third, and most definitely most important of all, the industry should be working all guns blazing on getting some smaller roads schemes ready to go – working with local authorities and Highways England to get schemes worked up and in to (and out of) the planning system, so that if the call does go out this time, they are ready to start.

Readers' comments (2)

  • stephen gibson

    No emergency budget. No corporation tax rises ( ongoing lowering proposed by the Chancellor). The FTSE has gone up. Pain au Chocolate are still being sold (many of my friends said the French would prevent the sale if we left). In the end, the majority of the UK saw through Project Fear and voted for a return to democratic sovereignty.

    Change is healthy. The EU prevented us having a trade agreement with India, already our Minister for Trade is visiting and setting out negotiations. This is the start of an internationally focused UK. We have much to be positive about, as the chains which have held us back are removed.

    As Civil Engineers, we have a proud history and reputation of working on major projects across the world. Even our Civil Engineering projects in UK, have inspired others internationally.

    As my 9 year old daughter pointed out at her school debate - we buy plenty of toys from China without China being in Europe anyway.

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  • The comments made are noted. It is important as said to be positive and to express our views to the Royal Academy of Engineering with that in mind.
    However, this should be done not in an atmosphere of fear, but with the same spirit coming from our Government of hope and a new beginning. Hammond has already said that Government is now prepared to borrow to finance infrastructure schemes, and it is important that we should advise as to how that money can be most effectively spent.
    Here I must disagree that we should get behind High Speed 2 by being ‘universally enthusiastic’ about it when this project has already been universally and consistently condemned by over half of those polled on the subject, latterly running at 5 to 3 against. Why expend £42bn (at least) on what is an unpopular vanity project of dubious value when there are so many other worthwhile projects to promote.
    Our expertise as a profession should be applied towards identification of such projects, and in identifying other areas where needless over-expenditure is being contemplated (cf Messrs Limbert and Edwards on Hinkley - Your View - NCE August 2016.)
    Roger Jones - 44,Park Street Lane, St Albans AL2 2JB

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