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Is serious investment in infrastructure finally a reality?

Prime minister Gordon Brown’s latest manifesto for the nation appears on the face of it to contain many good and sensible ideas for putting infrastructure at the heart of the economic recovery.

Sadly, there is no real idea about how any of it will be delivered.

As most people outside Westminster appreciate their country really has got a massive public spending problem. No matter who was to blame for the recent banking failures, the public purse had to come to the rescue. But as a consequence the government’s ability to bankroll future investment in the public realm is now severely impacted.

“The public purse had to come to the rescue. But the government’s ability to bankroll future investment in the public realm is now severely impacted.”

So while Brown proclaims: “We will ensure that Britain’s economy is underpinned by a world class modern infrastructure,” we must all whole heartedly agree. It is the key to economic recovery and the key to a low carbon future.

And we must be impressed when he vows to publish a feasibility study for a new northsouth high speed rail line within the year.

But as former Tory environment secretary John Gummer pointed out (see News), there just isn’t any cash for new initiatives − the future will be about “making do and mending”.

No matter how good an idea it may be to push ahead with a new programme of rail electrification, High Speed 2 or any other obviously vital infrastructure scheme, it will require a raft of new money and planning − neither of which would appear to be available right now.

And as delegates at this week’s NCE conference on London Rail heard Network Rail is very pleased to hear that government supports such a programme − it is just waiting to hear about where the cash will be found.

“Civil engineers must continue to ensure that we continue to deliver on time, to budget and prove that we really are the solution to the nation’s economic woes.”

It is the same with High Speed 2, Crossrail 2 (the proposed north-south second phase), extensions to the Bakerloo Line and new commuter lines into the capital. Great ideas which will bring huge benefits but which require the kind of pubic funding that simply isn’t available at the moment.

Brown seems to be putting a great deal of faith in the yet-to-be-explained Infrastructure UK advisory body and the £750M Strategic Investment Fund established to help drive through private sector cash. And we may all be surprised yet and find that they do hold the key to bringing forward non-existent public cash.

But meanwhile, as Crossrail chief executive Rob Holden, Transport for London managing director Ian Brown and London Underground director David Waboso all reminded the industry at the conference, the key right now is to ensure that everything we deliver is affordable, efficient and good value for public money.

The next 12 months will see much political posturing as we move towards and through a general election. Civil engineers must continue to ensure that we continue to deliver on time, to budget and prove that we really are the solution to the nation’s economic woes.

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