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Get ready to embrace new cost cutting challenges

It’s official. According to the Office of National Statistics the UK has finally emerged from recession.

If you believe the numbers, things are at last looking up in the economy. After a record six quarters of negative growth we saw a 0.1% increase in GDP in the last three months of 2009.

Which is good news, I suppose. While 0.1% growth can never be described as a spectacular figure, coupled with the small fall in unemployment, it does at least show that the trend is moving in the right direction.

But clearly there is a long way to go and few in civil engineering will be breaking out the champagne quite yet. The reality is that the recent economic crisis has left the country’s finances in the kind of great big mess that will take years to recover from.

“The days of plenty will be over and the delivery of more for less will soon become the only game in town”

Whatever the outcome of the forthcoming General Election, the one certain thing is that there will be less public money to spend. An awful lot less. And, crucially, a lot less than we have been used to of late.

Because whatever you think of the current administration, it has pumped vast amounts of cash into public services and infrastructure. This will have to stop.

The public sector, in particular, will find itself under extraordinary pressure to cut costs, delay investment, offload risk and find new ways to deliver critical services.

So make no mistake, the days of plenty will be over and the delivery of more for less will soon become the only game in town − the only game for several years to come.

Certainly this message was confirmed at last week’s NCE Road Summit. Both transport minister Chris Mole and shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers were very clear about the problems facing the public purse and the likely impact on investment.

Clients from around the UK were equally forthright about the demands that they would be putting on their supply chain to help meet their cost reduction targets.

It will be a similar story in the water sector as firms this week get to grips with the realities of Ofwat’s price determination.

“We should not overlook the opportunities that this challenge brings. Civil engineers are in the business of finding solutions.”

Clearly, whether on the roads, water, railways, energy, education, health or environment, the challenge of delivering the same services for 20% to 30% less can’t be underestimated. We need to get our heads around how to meet this new agenda.

But thinking positively, we should also not overlook the opportunities that this challenge brings. Civil engineers are, of course, in the business of finding solutions and so will be very well placed to work closely with clients to help them meet the challenge.

So while the recession may be over, the cuts are sure to come. Engineers must be ready with innovative ideas, new products and new thinking to embrace every opportunity that comes along.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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