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Could Clegg breathe life back into the municipal engineer?

Not so long ago, the county surveyor was a powerful figure in local government, responsible for roads, transport, water, sewers and all elements of development control.

Today, decades of centralisation and privatisation have altered the pecking order. But are things about to change? Are we on the verge of the renaissance of the municipal engineer?

Nick Clegg’s announcement this week that local authorities will soon be allowed to benefit from business tax increases generated by new infrastructure and development prompted a flurry of excitement across the civil engineering industry.

The introduction of so-called Tax Increment Funding (TIF) could represent a vital new mechanism for attracting investment into future infrastructure developments.

Of course it is in reality only a small step towards leveraging private sector cash to replace the public funding that will soon be lopped from budgets. Local authorities are unlikely to be seen suddenly rushing willy-nilly to borrow billions on the back of regeneration schemes across the UK.

There has, as always, to be the right risk profiles and the right returns on the investment. Given that it might leave local authorities carrying the can should the deal not deliver as expected, the development risks have all to be assessed and mitigated.

And it should also be emphasised that for all the local democratic freedoms this decision represents, the Treasury will inevitably retain a strong guiding hand to ensure that all TIF developments are properly audited.

So lots of detail to come on the exact workings of the scheme, but it is nevertheless a good start. And it shows that the coalition now recognises that public infrastructure is key to economic recovery.

“We will not let capital spending – investment in new buildings, infrastructure and repairs – be swept away as it has in the past,” said Clegg in his speech at the Liberal Democrats conference this week.

“This may not make the pulses race,” he added. “But I assure you it is the first step to breathing life back into our greatest cities.”

The plan is based around the coalition government’s desire to push more power and decision making down to the regional and neighbourhood level and, as Clegg says “put local government back in charge”.

And it is not new. The previous administration launched a series of pilots with £120M of seed cash and in Scotland similar pilots have been rolled out in Edinburgh, Glasgow and North Lanarkshire.

What is clear is that if local authorities are to embrace this new world of autonomy and local decision making around the provision and funding of infrastructure they will have to bolster their in-house expertise.

Expertise that will inevitably best come from our profession. The municipal engineer could yet be set for a comeback.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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