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Labour's love lost


Eight years into Tony Blair's New Labour revolution and, for all the talk (and with a few exceptions), the UK is still battling with outdated, under-capacity and worn out transport infrastructure.

It remains our national disgrace. As one consultancy boss pointed out to me last week, the UK is no longer the benchmark for engineering and infrastructure excellence.

Certainly we have the talent here. But, he explained, if you are trying to win work abroad, do not mention your work in the UK - it is unlikely to impress anyone.

That is a shame, especially for the users of transport in the UK who continue to struggle. But its also a shame for the engineering profession. Having created a showcase for infrastructure and then exported the technology, innovation and expertise all across the globe for a couple of centuries, our generation has dropped the ball.

There is no doubt that compared to the Victorian pioneers, modern engineers lack the olitical savvy to secure investment. But our elected representatives must shoulder the lion's share of the blame for the current transport infrastructure failings.

For too long our people and our country have been held back by the failure of successive governments to spend enough money when it was needed.

For too long in this country we have had to devote all our energies to fi xing the problems of yesterday rather than facing the challenges of tomorrow.

We need to build a transport system that is fi t for purpose, fi t for Britain and fi t for the future;

that enables people to get around while tackling congestion and pollution; a transport network that lets business do business.

But these are not my words.

The irony is that the last three paragraphs were lifted almost directly from transport secretary Alistair Darling's speech to the Labour conference this week.

In his 1,500 word sermon to the party faithful - and national media - one could be forgiven for thinking that he actually intended to do something about the UK's transport problems.

OK, there is new money going into transport - doubling transport spending is his phrase - believe it if you want.

Much cash is being poured into railway maintenance, new lines are on the cards, bus and train fl ets are being updated and motorways widened.

Yet as my consultant pointed out - as any visitor to the UK will see - we are working from a very low base. A doubling of very little still amounts to not enough.

But let me introduce some balance. As Adrian Lyons, director general of the Railway Forum points out this week in relation to Crossrail funding, the civil engineering profession has a responsibility and duty to fi nd solutions that are affordable. All things are not equal and there is, after all, no point chasing undeliverable dreams.

And let's get realistic for a moment - the current downward trend in economic growth predictions means Gordon Brown will struggle to balance the books over the remainder of his Chancellorship. As he prepares to move into Number 10, the last thing he will do is cut health, education and welfare spending to help pay for Crossrail or any other new railway.

So while it's probably the government's fault that our infrastructure is in such an embarrassingly shabby state, as the guardians of the built and natural environment it is our profession's problem.

Campaign, lobby and argue for government support, certainly. But we must also lift our heads to the realities of our own professional responsibilities.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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