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Comment | Housing the most important 'H' of all

Mark Hansford

Our industry’s focus on Hinkley, High Speed 2 and Heathrow is strangely at odds with the public’s true concern: housing.

The infrastructure autumn is underway and we’ve already had some decisions. Well, one decision. We’ve committed – finally – to a nuclear future with Hinkley. Which is great news for the industry.

And what a vote of confidence in the British construction industry it is by EdF – it’s tried building its European Pressurised Reactor in Finland – no luck there. It’s tried building it back at home in France – still no joy. So where does it turn to get this thing built and operational? Britain – where else?

And the even better news is that University College London says advances in renewable technologies mean Hinkley will be obsolete within seven years of its 2023 opening – so we can already start to look forward to tenders being invited for the decommissioning work.

But we’re still waiting on some other big decisions.

We still don’t know what Brexit actually means.

We still know we need loads more infrastructure investment, particularly in metros here in London and around the other big cities – but we still don’t know how we’re going to pay for it.

We’re still planning for High Speed 2 – but still – as the Public Accounts Committee says –  we don’t really know when it’s going to open, how much it is expected to cost or precisely where it will go. Small details admittedly.

And we still don’t know if we’re going to build a new runway at Heathrow, or Gatwick, or both, or neither.

Frankly, we still don’t have a joined up infrastructure strategy – although Sir John Armitt’s National Needs Assessment is shortly going to give some direction there.

One thing that is emerging is the government’s recognition of the need for housing to be central to the infrastructure debate – and it is expected that the Needs Assessment will put that up front and central, even if it wasn’t really within its brief to consider it.

It’s clearly high on the political agenda. New chancellor Philip Hammond used the Conservative Party Conference to announce a £5bn fund to accelerate the construction of new homes. And in London, new mayor Sadiq Khan is making it clear that housing is top of his agenda too. Future projects like Crossrail 2 are already being justified on the access to affordable homes that they enable.

It’s on the political agenda because it’s high on the public’s agenda.

There’s a lot of talk that next month that Hammond will use his Autumn Statement to throw some money at infrastructure in the name of fiscal stimulus.

So what should he invest in? Here’s the thing. Opinion polling organisation Ipsos Mori asked that question back in October 2012, the last time government was talking about infrastructure as fiscal stimulus.

And, despite our industry’s vocal support, building a new high speed line came rank bottom with support from only 4% of the respondents. 

Interesting, isn’t it? Want to know what was second from bottom? Yes, you’ve guessed it – more airport capacity with 5% support. More people want more high speed broadband than they do a third runway at Heathrow.

So do you want to know what was top – and by a country mile? Build more homes. Forty per cent of people said this was way to boost the economy with infrastructure. And who in our industry is campaigning for that?

Improving existing roads was second and improving existing rail was third.

This is relevant right now as with this issue you will have received your British Construction Industry Awards supplement.

Inside are scores of projects that are delivering for society – and there’s not a high speed railway or third runway in sight.

BCIA2016 3x2

The British Construction Industry Awards were awash with great projects

We know that every one of those has got a great story to tell and that every one is loved by the public or its end user – we know, because we visited the schemes in use, something engineers don’t often get to do. It’s revealing.

It tells us we are doing the stuff the public wants. And we need to shout about these projects more. These are the projects that government should be investing its fiscal stimulus in. Let’s hope that it does.

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