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Confirmed: infrastructure investment will drive recovery

Chancellor Alistair Darling has vowed to boost the UK economy with increased spending on the public realm. At last he seems to understand the value of decent modern infrastructure, says NCE editor Antony Oliver.

As I wrote in this column just after the banking crisis started to emerge at the end of September "investment in quality, tangible infrastructure can and must be the driver for economic recovery".

One month, several bank collapses and a £37bn public cash injection later, I am pleased to see that Chancellor Alistair Darling at last agrees and has vowed to use public investment in public infrastructure to drive the UK's economic recovery.

"You will see us switching our spending priorities to areas that make a difference," he said, highlighting that areas he thought would make that difference included Crossrail, the 2012 Olympics, power stations and transport projects.

His list was not in fact dissimilar from that published by NCE last week.

This is all, without question, very good news for the industry. We must now wait of course for the flesh to be put on the bones. But by all accounts, now Gordon Brown's 40% of GDP public debt barrier has been passed and parked, the forthcoming pre-Budget report should demonstrate that the government has finally twigged the long term value of decent modern infrastructure.

Darling's reference to and belief in Keynesian economic theory is crucial. When economist John Maynard Keynes proposed the theory of budget deficit-backed state spending as a solution to the economic downturn of the 1930s we did, there was indeed a raft of railway legislation and construction that followed – witness the huge expansion in the London Underground at the time as one example.

Darling's comment must surely therefore once again reinforce civil engineering's place as a fundamental part of the UK's future growth plans. Fundamental, as new business secretary Lord Mandelson described it this week, to the "new approach to business growth".
We have to believe it. We have to champion it. Decent modern transport, energy and water infrastructure are the backbone of the nation's economic prosperity.

And while banking and financial services are vitally important of course, they have been shown as simply a mechanism - not a substitute - for allowing the so-called "real" economy to grow.
As a profession we have to use this difficult moment in economic history to our advantage. We have to absolutely hammer home to politicians that civil engineers must now be at the heart of policy making. We have to reinforce ourselves as the solution and work with the new willing listeners in Whitehall to build the nation out of recession.

As I said last week, the future will be all about relationships and using them to deliver more for less. So when handed the keys to Crossrail, rail investment, renewable and nuclear power supply investment we must make absolutely sure we can deliver ahead of time and under-budget.
But with this firmly in mind, now is the time for us to grab the ball thrown to us by Darling and run as hard as we can. For as long as we can.

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