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Comment | Is now the time to be bold or realistic?

HOK Heathrow plan

So we have our new prime minister. One thing’s for sure, the news comes as a big tick for women’s equality. What is less certain is how it affects infrastructure and our industry’s workload.

Of course, with all the political turmoil right now, it’s not only infrastructure that faces uncertainty. But let’s take a look at what we know. We’re saying goodbye to one of the longest serving transport secretaries in Patrick McLoughlin, to be replaced by Chris Grayling. As justice secretary, Grayling took a huge swipe at legal aid, so is clearly unafraid to upset an industry reliant on his policies for its livelihood.

Add to that, prime minister Theresa May has axed the Department for Energy and Climate Change.

So the civils industry holds its breath. And while it does there are a few things many can’t help pondering on.

Uppermost in the national headlines are all the Hs – again. High Speed 2 (HS2), Heathrow and Hinkley Point C are on the worry list.

No one knows just yet whether prime minister Theresa May, transport secretary Chris Grayling and new chancellor Philip Hammond – a former transport secretary – are pro all of them. But we can be sure that they will not go ahead at any cost, and reviews and contemplation are likely to perpetuate insecurity for the foreseeable.

So what if it’s decided that green-lighting Heathrow is not worth the political backlash? Depending on how much you believe in “project fear”, financial giants might be set to move out of London, taking with them one of the key reasons for expanding Heathrow. For years business leaders have said the main reason for building a Heathrow third runway was to ensure the capital remained open as a global financial powerhouse.

And what if Hinkley and HS2 costs rise and the risks of putting all our energy and rail eggs in one basket become too high? Added to which, if we come out of Europe as soon as early 2019 as David Davis, dubbed Brexit minister, has today said, what happens to the projects predicated on EU regulations? The Tideway tunnel’s main reason for being stems from a need to comply with the European Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive.

Cancelling, or not approving, all of them seems unlikely. But going ahead with them all, seems mightily risky and complex all of a sudden. 

May is understood to have disapproved of some of the key policies of former chancellor George Osborne – namely that the Northern Powerhouse was focused far too much on major conurbations (Manchester in particular) and failed to attend to the rest of the North’s towns and cities. And there is also a suggestion she felt the same about HS2.

So, perhaps it would be wise to pay attention to what else is out there. There’s one thing that most parliamentarians seem convinced of since the 2008 economic downturn: investing in infrastructure, and in turn the construction and engineering industry, is good for all.

If one, two or more of these mega schemes become consigned to the history books of almost, nearly-built grand ideas, there are alternatives. If rail connectivity and new roads are key, perhaps we should bring to the fore other ideas. A road/rail tunnel under the Pennines anyone? We’re more efficient, safer and reliable than ever at building underground and it certainly helps avoid the planning quagmire faced by above ground major transport schemes.

And what about small modular reactors? Offsite built, smaller nuclear reactors that don’t scream complexity and cost overruns like Hinkley predecessor Flamanville. Perhaps, even, tidal power generation and biomass will gain a boost.

It is worth considering that pushing the more do-able schemes under the politicians’ noses might be a great strategy. Highways England thinks so. The roads body is preparing a £500M bucket of shovel-ready projects for any stimulus money to be used on.

A question for all to think about: is now the time to be bold or pragmatic? Let’s hear what you think. 

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