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Difficult change is coming – and it's a good thing for us

Should civil engineering professionals feel uncomfortable about the forthcoming Infrastructure UK investigation into the cost of infrastructure? I’d say yes, we should be.

Because while the Treasury very clearly points out that its work will look beyond the fees charged by consultants and contractors, there is no question that substantial changes to the status quo will have to be the result.

Of course, the good thing about the proposed investigation is that we will have the opportunity to really drill into the facts and strip away the anecdotes about what makes UK infrastructure cost what it currently costs. We will see like for like comparisons between regions, sectors and with the rest of Europe. Hopefully we will then learn.

We must get our heads around the idea that this process will be about rocking the boat. We will have to feel uncomfortable. We will have to accept that change is coming.

While there was real cause for celebration last week following the coalition government’s decision not to cut further into capital spending, October’s comprehensive spending review will certainly not be so generous.

With every government department faced with finding savings of at least 25%, the spotlight will inevitably fall on the activities of civil engineers across the country and across public spendingsectors.

“The coming weeks will be very important for the civil engineering profession if we are to ensure that when the axe inevitably falls, it lands in the right place”

The coming weeks will therefore be very important for the civil engineering profession if we are to ensure that when the axe inevitably falls, it lands in the right place.

Faced with this reality, feeling uncomfortable is what we probably all need to convince us to engage with the UK’s economic woes. The trick will be to rapidly convert this negative feeling into the vital positive action needed to do something about it.

We are all, of course, agreed that the investment in decent modern infrastructure is vital to the UK’s economic recovery. Yet as we heard clearly at NCE’s More for Less round table discussion this week, the key question will continue to be around identifying the priorities. Faced with a declining pot of public money, the UK will not be able to invest in everything we currently think of as vital. As an industry, we must ensure that we are at the table advising the Treasury over what and where investment is critical.

But, as our panellists clearly pointed out, it is impossible to ignore the issue of efficiency. While there are huge amounts that government can do to pump prime vital private sector investment, to streamline planning and to reform regulation, we cannot ignore the fundamental fact of affordability.

And that factor is very clearly in our domain. It is something that we really have to address positively and quickly so as to give credibility to the rest of our advice. And if it makes us feel uncomfortable then so be it.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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