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.