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Comment | Let’s pray for a new age of bold action

Mark Hansford

Bam Nuttall celebrated 150 years of trading this week, one of two major UK civils firms to be marking that milestone this year (the second being Costain).

The year of 1865 was a seminal one for civil engineering. Catching the tail end of the Railway Age, it was a time for innovation and ingenuity. Yes, the railways had been built, but much still needed to be done to integrate them into a unified network. The age of the automobile was fast approaching and public health was high on the agenda following the Great Stink of summer 1858.

This demand for infrastructure - for engineers - meant the industry was fast evolving, with the emergence of the contractor as a company rather than an individual and able to meet the challenge of building increasingly ambitious projects.

Fast forward to today and arguably we have taken a step back. That was certainly the view of former transport secretary Michael Portillo, speaking at the Bam Nuttall celebrations. He slammed today’s British culture of taking satisfaction in “incremental change”, a “frustrating” culture that has seen the rest of the world overtake us in rail, in roads, in aviation, in buildings, in pretty much every area.

TGV train

How is it we are perceived to have become so timid? Even in the 1960s we were building motorways, he bemoaned. How is it Germany, Holland, Spain, France, Japan and China have delivered on high speed rail when we have not?

And how have we permitted the “political cowardice” that has allowed successive governments of all colours to keep postponing decisions on runway capacity?

These were Portillo’s woes. But he also saw hope in the government’s commitment to an imminent decision on runway capacity. He saw hope in a Conservative government backing a high speed railway that will largely benefit Labour-supporting northern urbanites while inconveniencing Conservative-supporting country dwellers (his words). And he definitely saw hope in Lord Adonis’ new independent National Infrastructure Commission, also formally launched this week.

The launch, made alongside a commitment that infrastructure will be at heart of the next Spending Review and a £100bn pledge on infrastructure spend by 2020, is clearly good news. But there is still doubt that the commission and the cash pledge will genuinely throw off the timidity. Will it deliver bold decision making? Will it get stuff done - or will it just provide more excuses for review and prevarication?

Portillo thinks not. Others are less sure. Businesses are certainly sceptical, with nearly two-thirds of them concerned about the pace of progress on the delivery of infrastructure projects, according to the 2015 CBI/Aecom Infrastructure Survey - also published this week. And with over half believing they won’t see necessary upgrades in the next five years, the Commission has a big job to do to boost confidence.

James Nuttall bloomed at the tail end of the bold Railway Age. Today we are at the beginning of a second one, with High Speed 2, High Speed 3, Crossrail 2, and a widespread electrification programme all in various stages of serious development. Let’s hope this age also comes to be remembered as bold and adventurous - and not timid and incremental.


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