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Comment | How to begin digging ourselves out of a very deep hole

Mark Hansford

The out vote in the EU referendum has left civil engineers in a very, very deep hole. Is there a way out of it?

Britain voting to leave the European Union was the nightmare scenario for civil engineering. We almost didn’t dare speak of it.

There really is no obviously good way spin it: every industry leader or expert spoken to privately by New Civil Engineer in the immediate run-up to, or immediate aftermath of, the EU referendum was clear – we are now bang in trouble.

We now face two (or more) years of absolute uncertainty; two (or more) years of absolute paralysis in infrastructure decision-making while an exit is negotiated and the economy deteriorates around us.

If forecasts are correct in predicting a decline in UK GDP as a result of Brexit, and there is no reason yet to believe them to be wrong, investment in infrastructure is going to be hit – and hit badly.

It’s tragic. Just as momentum was building around the need for a sustained period of infrastructure investment; just as we were beginning to sell our industry as one for bright, technology-savvy young people to build a career, the rug has been pulled.

There are today real fears for infrastructure spending. Because let’s be under no illusions – there is little in the way of UK infrastructure spending that has any real protection from such rug-pulling. Yes, Highways England, Network Rail, Transport for London and even the Environment Agency have multi-year investment plans backed by government-approved funding packages. But at the end of the day the money and the spending sits on the government’s balance sheet and if it needs to make interventions in the event of a falling economy, it will.

And that’s just the baseload stuff. What the industry was really getting excited about was major, transformational projects like High Speed 2, Crossrail 2 and High Speed 3. All experts New Civil Engineer has been speaking to this week are united in the view that they are now heading for the deep long grass. Who can commit to funding these right now? Not prime minister David Cameron – he’s off in the Autumn. What of his replacement? Maybe – but who knows who that will be.

And what of the privately-funded stuff like Hinkley Point C or Tidal Lagoons? Investors like certainty. So they won’t like the UK right now. If you want to fund an energy project, there are suddenly far more stable economies to go and fund one in.

Today the noise from the industry has been about reminding government of the need to continue with its infrastructure investment pledge.

It probably needs to be a bit more vocal than that.

Because maybe – just maybe – the government will want to prove that despite all the upheaval, it is business as usual. And so maybe, just maybe, a politician – whether it is Cameron or his successor – will want to use a major infrastructure project or two as proof that we are not entering two (or more)  years of stasis; proof that we are, a very British way, keeping calm and carrying on.

So if – if – that can be the reality, what needs to happen? What can we do?

Well, first, I would suggest, we need to agree among ourselves what infrastructure project(s) need to happen. Because we’re pretty poor at that generally and now is not the time to appear divided or indecisive – there is plenty of that elsewhere.

So what is it that we want? Is it a an extra runway in the south east? Is it a new nuclear power station? Is it High Speed 2? Is it Smart motorways? Is it the Digital Railway? Or is it the end to potholes?

And to pick those projects I respectfully suggest to those currently doing the picking that we also consider the youth. Maybe even talk to them. Because if I was an under 25 right now I would be feeling pretty disenfranchised with life as a Briton.

It’s shocking. An eve-of-result poll released by YouGov at 10pm last night (which, admittedly, gave Remain a four-point lead) had 75% of Brits 24 and younger reporting they voted for Britain to stay in the European Union.

Three-quarters of all young people do not agree with this decision. To me that’s huge. To me that’s a failure of the system. And to me that’s something that we, as infrastructure professionals have to look at.

Let’s find out what they think we should be spending our (increasingly limited) funds on – and then let’s go to government with that. It is, after all, their future, and their infrastructure.

So how about that? Engage the youth and show the world that we have at least learned something from what is otherwise a very dark day for infrastructure.

Readers' comments (4)

  • Given the clear divide between how London and the rest of England voted, would it not be the perfect opportunity for the Government to commit to providing improved infrastructure that will improve the links so desperately needed to help the North grow at anything like the levels seen in the South?

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  • Barry Walton

    Stewart Marshall's observation is reasonable but has nothing in particular to do with being in or out of the EU. There is a general impression that we do not have sufficient housing for the current and projected population nor (and you just have to travel to see that this is true) do we have adequate infrastructure to support growth and wealth creation. The cases for investment seem to be economically sound and the EU issue is fog in this context. Why not ask Messrs Dyson and Bamford how the work can be kept on track? They both expressed the view that we should be better off out and will both be worse of if Britain stalls. As to Mark Hansford's point that we should not appear to be divided this dodges the fundamental that we are divided and, I suspect, the Engineering industries were no more homogeneous than the rest of society. We ignore that reality at our peril.
    Barry Walton (F Rtd)

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  • The banks have plenty of money. Time they invested directly in infrastructure - taking the risks themselves ... read some history - ancient egypt, mongols, moguls, rome, venice/genoa/constantinople

    take a risk, and make some REAL money !

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  • What an appalling, negative, totally exaggerated article. I have no comprehension of what this alleged very deep hole might be? Why don't we look at some of the positives:

    1. With government investment on the increase - I don't see how the government will do a U turn on investment. They would totally lose credibility with the electorate - and they can ill afford to do that after their performance during the Brexit campaign.

    2. For young people - industry will be forced into investing in young people from the UK with apprenticeships rather than taking the easy way out of importing labour from Eastern Europe.

    3. For exports - the fall in sterling is what this country needs to kick start exports and reduce imports because our balance of payment deficit is out of control - it has been over 5% of GDP for the last two years. Suddenly, our construction services are 10% more competitive overseas - what a wonderful opportunity!

    4. For GDP (in £ terms) - it will be much more likely that British firms will be competitive both for exports and for any consumer expenditure or construction investment.

    Can we not take the position of the general public rather than all the doom-mongers who seem to be continuing the Remain campaign's Project Fear? Nearly all members of the public I have seen interviewed on TV, including most of those who were Remain, are far more pragmatic and upbeat - we've made the decision, let's get on with it and make the most of the opportunities that will present themselves.

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