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Comment | Infrastructure projects depend on clarity

Mark Hansford

Three interesting surveys and reports out this week; just days ahead of Spending Review 2015 when we will find out the extent of cuts to key infrastructure budgets such as transport and flood defence.

The first, from pollsters Ipsos Mori, showed how transport is seen by the public as one of the most cuttable government spending streams, sitting tightly behind overseas aid, benefit payments and defence.

The poll reveals how two in three Britons do not agree that the government’s policies will improve the state of public services and that three in five think the government is making the wrong decisions on where spending cuts should be made.

So for transport to sit so prominently on that list has to be a worry.

northern rail

Why this is so may be partially explained by the findings of the second survey, this time by pollsters Comres, which found that 44% of northerners are unaware of chancellor George Osborne’s much-vaunted Northern Powerhouse, with just 6% saying that they had heard about the infrastructure boom that is driving it.

Credit to the Civil Engineering Contractors Association here, which has responded by calling for a detailed pipeline of the public and private investments in infrastructure that the government believes will unleash growth in the North, along with an assessment of the actions that would need to be taken to make each project a reality.

It’s a fair call – local authority body Transport for the North earlier this year set out details of up to £65bn of proposed rail schemes across the North of England as the government works towards its Powerhouse vision.

Yet how real is any of that? The third report out this week was probably the most damning of all.

It came from the Commons public accounts committee, and it expressed its “serious concerns” about rail investment in the UK. The committee pointed to “staggering and unacceptable” cost increases in the project to electrify the Great Western Main Line from London to Cardiff, which is now expected to cost up to £1.2bn more than the £1.6bn estimated a year ago.

The Committee added there was still “far too much uncertainty” about costs and eventual delivery dates for the electrification of the Midland Main Line and the Powerhouse-driven TransPennine route and has called for a new programme to be drawn up.

The newly established Infrastructure Commission clearly has quite a job on. Reviewing infrastructure plans for the North is one of its three immediate priorities, and these surveys and reports seem to show why.

Getting clarity about what these projects are, how deliverable they are, and what the genuine national interest they are serving seems crucial - certainly if public opinion has anything to do with it.


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