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A long road to recovery: Repairing and building Britain’s infrastructure

Latest research from the Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA) has warned the “catch up cost” of filling the potholes plaguing Britain’s roads would be £12bn, with much of the work done to repair damaged roads undone by winter’s heavy rainfall.

However, there is some positive news for the construction industry. The sector is clapping its hands with joy over announcements that we will see a £24bn road investment in the UK from 2015 until 2021. While this has been mostly applauded, some have responded with slight cynicism. After decades of underfunding, severe winters and catastrophic flooding, how much of the investment will contribute to, simply, patching up our deteriorating network?

Infrastructure development is the engine of economic growth. For hundreds of years, Britain pioneered infrastructure - from the invention of the steam engine to the passenger railway and the world’s first Underground system. Roads and railways have driven our economy and fostered growth, yet today our infrastructure has experienced decades of neglect.

Then, there is the scale of bridge repair work. A repair project on the Hammersmith Flyover, costing an estimated £70M, has recently been commissioned. In spite of Transport for London warning of a collapse over two years ago, the flyover reached a critical state before contractors were called in.Inspections revealed that post tensioning tendons running through the structure were deteriorating at higher than expected rate, affecting its ability to support its weight.

In recent years, there have been drastic cuts to road maintenance budgets, leading to our infrastructure being neglected by local authorities, with problems escalating.

The £24bn sum triples annual funding across the road network. However, despite the government finally taking notice of the dire state of our roads and railways, a great proportion of it will go towards reactive projects – repairing roads and railways in a critical condition – as opposed to proactive.

And it is not just a case of how much the government can invest. An important factor when planning and implementing is acknowledging how the changes will impact the users, and how much they can bear, as it is crucial that consumer capacity is identified, alongside industrial capacity.

Inevitably, there will be a big shift in the supply chain to cope with the scale of work to come. Construction companies will need to make sure that they have the right people on board to deliver the projects, and ensure that suppliers have the capacity to deal with the increase in demand.

Another challenge when developing and implementing the plans is prioritisation; establishing the areas which are critical and networks that should be prioritised. You could have the best plan in place, but it is how those plans are designed and constructed that counts. The design and implementation of maintenance, strengthening and replacement solutions are fundamental – not only to ensure safety – but to minimise delay and disruption to the public.Therefore, it is vital that project parameters are established using all the available evidence and expertise.

Ultimately, the public sector will lean on the private sector for expertise, consultancy and labour. Rather than offering quick fixes to longstanding problems, we should look to provide long-term solutions to ensure maintainability and longevity.

This is desperately what Britain needs; a strategic, long-term plan to salvage our infrastructure, and create a solid, modern network. There’s no doubt building and renewing our network is going to be a bumpy (and eye-wateringly expensive) ride.

  • Richard Selby is co-founder of Pro Steel Engineering

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