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Decent modern infrastructure is essential to recovery

The scale of the new coalition government’s public spending cuts will soon be known. It is unlikely that we will be pleasantly surprised when the detail is revealed.

For months now local authorities and central government departments have been preparing for 20% cuts in operational spending plus cuts of up to 50% in capital spending.

With very few exceptions, the reality could easily see these being even deeper. So it is clear that, for civil engineering professionals in particular, the scale of these funding cuts could well have a massive impact on our work load and activity.

Politicians will, we know, steer clear of cutting populist front line services such health, education and social services for fear of a massive public protest backlash.

It is inevitable therefore that infrastructure will be the soft silent target for public spending cuts. It means that we have to be very careful and very creative when it comes to making our case for future investment.

We have to ensure that civil engineering and public infrastructure spending is understood as not “nice to have” but integral to the recovery.

“Investing in the public transport, roads, power and water supplies of an area, government encourages the vital private investment to stimulate business.”

While it is of course vital that the government drastically reduces the spiralling public debt and tackles the public spending deficit head on, it is equally important that it does not neglect the investment required to stimulate and support the economic recovery.

And chancellor George Osborne must not forget that economic recovery, not simply making cuts, is the challenge.

In all the excitement of ripping up the last government’s spending plans he must not forget the challenge of tackling the UK’s growing unemployment and supporting our increasingly stressed local communities.

Decent modern infrastructure, the backbone of the UK’s economic recovery, is his secret weapon. We have to prove this point to the government over the next five years.

The focus of our message must be around value that infrastructure generates and the wealth creation that it enables.

It is an obvious but often overlooked fact that every person made unemployed costs the state tens of thousands a year in benefits and lost tax revenues.

“We have to demonstrate that rather than being a drain on the public coffers, infrastructure pays for itself”

We must demonstrate that by investing in the public transport, road network, power and water supplies of an area, government can not only create jobs but also encourage the vital private investment to stimulate business and the creation of jobs for the future.

Or that by supporting the fledgling markets such as renewable and low carbon energy it can kick-start a range of businesses, creating new jobs and new technologies at a stroke.

Or that by investing in the creation and sustaining of more cohesive communities it can not only create wealth but save the vast amounts currently spent tackling crime, health and social problems.

In short, we have to demonstrate that rather than being a drain on the public coffers, investment in infrastructure actually pays for itself. Do that and we’ll be pushing at an open door.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

Readers' comments (3)

  • Robin Smitherman

    According to NCE civil engineers preferred the idea of a Labour government; to disguise the extent and severity of these cuts? Since the cuts arise from Labour's over-spending, surely those engineers who voted Labour are hoist with their own petard.

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  • RS is absolutely correct. I assume the majority of the engineers who said they would vote Labour are public service engineers voting simply for their own protected interests! To them, welcome to the real world!

    As to solutions to assist in recovering from the "bankrupt" state of the UK plc:

    I suggest we generate the major savings from abandonning the horrendously expensive and unnecessary AGW faction led Climate Change works, particularly wind farms, other than energy efficiency works. We need urgent economies and the long term benefits of more extensive R&D and product development work. The immediate need for AGW works has been far from substantiated and any UK contribution to reducing the global AGW problem, even if AWG is occurring at any significant rate, will be negligable and dwarfed by the effects of emerging nations' AGW inputs.

    Any technical advantage for such AWG works within the UK will be short lived and, within the global market, the bulk of the work and related manufacturing and installation works will go overseas and benefit the UK economically only marginally. We also urgently need to see the costs of the previously intended and partially commited extended period of AGW works as I suspect these are not properly represented and are under-estimated within the current budget forecasts and long term deficit reduction programme.

    We urgently need to get unit costs and overheads down! Not by less engineers or lower salaries but by more efficient designs, construction/installation/operations and project management resulting in related increased margins and salaries based on a premium for excellence.

    Our contribution in the present dire circumstances of the UK plc includes the necessity for re-establishing the old definition of an engineer, i.e. an engineer is someone who can design, instal, construct, or operate a system for far less than anything produced by others! And keep the non-engineers out of it!

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    This looks like the worst recession in my working life. It is made worse by massive overspending by a Labour government (as they did on all previous occasions).

    We will be lucky if this is only a treble or quadruple dip recession. More likely the economy will be flat for 10 years.

    Previous, milder recessions led to major damage to civil engineering (where have all those regional companies gone?).

    The only thing that matters is export earnings, not public services, not defence etc. The deficit reduction plan is necessary to force people from their cushioned lives in the public sector into exports.

    For most younger members this will be achieved by exporting yourself to work abroad for the next decade.

    Infrastructure is a vital enabler. But exporters don't need Crossrail, HS2, etc, just trucks, roads (overloaded or not) and ports.

    It is noteworthy that previous recessions suited the elite of the institution as it made their labour force substantially cheaper. There was then no sign of selfless leadership and support to the next generation of members.

    Our institution should get out of parish politics. It should start to support the thousands of younger members who are going to have to take substantial risks by working abroad to survive.

    Will the elite do better this time?

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