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Britain should wake up to strategic infrastructure spending

While the UK was fast asleep, I kicked off NCE’s Tunnelling 2020 conference in Hong Kong on Monday. Who could fail to be impressed?

The conference began with study tours of three key projects: MTR’s West Island Line with its complex urban rock cavern construction; the Guangzhou-Shenzen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link with its vast West Kowloon Terminus and huge programme of tunnelling; and the HATS2 sewage conveyance system which is pushing the boundaries of horizontal directional drilling.

These are three of many projects now underway or at the planning stage across the territory. Most boast technical firsts and eye-watering engineering challenges.

As I said, who could fail to be impressed? But, conversely, who could fail to not be concerned about how far behind we are falling in the West?

“The States is relying short sightedly on crack-papering via stimulus rather than nettle grasping via long term infrastructure investment”

Because the conference isn’t in Hong Kong just because of its own underground activity. Across the border, China’s tunnelling and construction activity continues to dwarf just about anything anywhere in the world.
Shanghai has over 100 tunnel boring machines in the ground and China plans to build 45 new airports and double its high speed rail network to 25,000km by 2015.

Aside from the clear technical challenges, we are also witnessing, the awakening of a nation. With 1.4bn people being urbanised and mobilised onto the world market, life as we knew it in the West will certainly change.

Contrast the cash-rich Asia Pacific region with the austerity and impending financial chaos across Europe and the United States.

As US software house boss Greg Bentley points out, the States is relying short sightedly on crack-papering via stimulus rather than nettle grasping via long term infrastructure investment as it struggles to deliver true economic growth.

“We still have no real overarching policies to make the vital link between infrastructure and economic growth”

And while the UK has projects like Crossrail and has Nick Clegg’s rhetoric about the value of infrastructure spend, we still have no real overarching policies to make the vital link between infrastructure and economic growth.

The US and most of developed Europe have now become poor countries populated by rich people. China and its Asia-Pacific neighbours, on the other hand, have the advantage of being rich countries populated mostly by poor people. For the moment.

Hence their ability to push on with infrastructure planning and provision seemingly unhindered by anything other than resources.

But while this region gets on with growth, the UK remains asleep − and I don’t just mean in the time zone sense. Yet our future success is linked to the emergence of this region.

So staying asleep is no longer an option. We must put our clocks forward and wake up to the need to get in shape to compete.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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