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Decisiveness will boost the state of our nation


The trouble with democracy is that it is so hard to get things done. So much time spent on consultation, so much lobbying, so many options to weigh up and rank.

So much to get in the way of actually doing anything.

If we are serious about sorting out the state of the nation's infrastructure - rated once again 'poor' by the ICE's State of the Nation report this week - we must really think seriously about abandoning the democratic process altogether.

After all, when it comes to taking action on difficult, controversial issues, there really is nothing like a bit of benign dictatorship to get things moving.

Certainly the UK's recent record of creating and maintaining a decent modern infrastructure has all the hallmarks of a democratic stalemate. We have seen decades of woolly, shortterm decisions designed to give voters just enough to get them happily to the next polling station. We have witnessed a total lack of strategic thinking and little of the political bravery required to make a step change.

It is shocking, perhaps, but if we really are going to turn the tide of infrastructure decline in the UK, consultation must be put aside and replaced quickly with radical dictatorial leadership.

By all accounts the ICE is starting to move towards this way of thinking. The general public, says the State of the Nation report, must 'understand the pros and cons and accept there are no perfect solutions or easy answers' to the nation's infrastructure problems.

'Increasing public involvement in decision making is to be encouraged, ' it says, but 'government must be prepared to drive through essential infrastructure works in the national interest. Short term populist decisions cannot deliver a viable future'.

So the government must take advice, give the public the facts, but then give them a decision.

Then it must take the practical steps to make a difference. No endless discussion: if the decision is sensible and successful the majority will applaud.

Without doubt if this kind of 'undemocratic' process was adopted we would soon start to see progress and our infrastructure would be rapidly returned to first class working order.

But in reality could the democratic process ever be put aside for the sake of the greater national interest? Well, it would not be the first time.

The key question for civil engineers is: What would motivate the government sufficiently to take such action and tackle the perilous state of the UK's infrastructure?

The answer, sadly, always returns to the ballot box. If there are no votes in it, politicians will not generally be very interested.

And as we enter the final phase of government before a general election, infrastructure still languishes below health, education and social security.

The ICE's State of the Nation report is a good thing. It makes some very important points and leaves politicians in no doubt that action is long overdue. As the UK's pre-eminent engineering body, the ICE has the right and knowledge to lead the decision process. This report does a great job outside government of giving information and informing the democratic process.

But I fear real progress will only come when the ICE actually gets inside government and starts to dictate. And that aspiration remains some way off for the profession.

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