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Crossrail's revival holds timely lessons for policy makers

CECA director Rosemary Beales says that while Crossrail stumbled in the past due to a poor economic outlook, it will go ahead despite wider economic uncertainty now, and we will all benefit as a result.

Crossrail will be an exciting project, but getting to the start line has in itself been a monumental achievement. The idea has been around for decades. It was last put forward in the late 1980s but shelved in the 1990s when the economy slipped into recession.

Two building blocks in the revival of Crossrail hold some lessons for policy makers. Firstly, it is an ambitious plan, forecasted to cost up to £16bn. In the early 1990s public spending was being squeezed to counter a recession and the cost of Crossrail forced the government to cut it from their transport plans. This was a short-term, political decision that ignored the wider benefits of the scheme.

Today, the scheme is going ahead despite a worsening economic climate, precisely because the long-term benefits of the scheme are seen to be greater than the possible short term damage to public finances. This is, we hope, evidence of longer-term thinking about the importance of infrastructure in sustainable economic growth.

The second important building block is the cross-party support that Crossrail now enjoys. With work due to start in earnest in 2010 and the first trains expected to run in 2017, there will be at least two general elections before the scheme is completed.

Consensus between the major parties on the importance of this project means that it should survive troubled times regardless of who occupies Number 10, or perhaps more importantly, Number 11 Downing Street.

It does not require a huge leap of logic to suggest that what works for Crossrail and for London could work for the greater strategic transport network or even in the context of the nation’s infrastructure as a whole.

At present, apart from a possible 25 year strategy for investment in flood defences put forward in the Pitt Review and an enlightened approach to investment in transport infrastructure in Scotland, which aims to give contractors greater programme visibility, we have had nothing close to a strategy that does justice to the importance of our critical national infrastructure. The last serious attempt by this Government was the Ten-Year Plan for Transport, launched in 2000 and ditched in 2004 when it became politically inexpedient.

Infrastructure is a political football. Governments can hide from hard choices when it suits them – how many energy reviews did it take before they backed new-build nuclear? – and pull the plug on their plans if the Treasury forces a rethink.

We need to lift investment in our critical national infrastructure above this. Long-term strategies for enhancing capacity and improving performance should have cross-party backing, based on a consensus on the importance of the investment.

This will ensure the plug cannot be pulled despite changes in government and economic conditions. The foundations for this could be found in the National Policy Statements on infrastructure being put forward in the current Planning Bill. With a general election less than two years away, there is a good opportunity to learn from the success that Crossrail has achieved to date.

 Rosemary Beales is national director of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association

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