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Viewpoint | We must make the infrastructure case in the ‘Brexit election’

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The uncertainty of a General Election was the last thing that much of our industry wanted. A Brexit election does, however, create an opportunity to explain to politicians what UK infrastructure needs to thrive outside the European Union (EU). 

We must not be shy in making our voice heard. Construction accounts for around 8% of the economy. More importantly, the infrastructure we deliver and operate is crucial to growing our economy, spreading wealth, protecting communities threatened by a changing climate and a myriad of other goods that politicians of all parties say they want secure.  

Immediately after last year’s referendum, our then President Sir John Armitt convened a Brexit Infrastructure Group (BIG).

Issues we face

The BIG has been quietly working with ministers and officials to explain the issues we face. As we move into the election, a clear agenda has emerged, with two over-arching priorities.

First skills. An absolute shortage of key skills, alongside a general, rapid growth in labour costs is a sure way to make projects unaffordable.

A self-inflicted skills crisis, caused by a significant chunk of the EU labour force suddenly being lost is in no one’s interest.

Growing skills

Medium term we can use the visibility created by the National Infrastructure Pipeline to grow skills in the UK, including the digital capabilities that may well transform the labour force.

Second is investment. The UK has built up a reputation as a centre of excellence in the planning, financing, design and operation of major infrastructure.

Commitment and reputation

World leading economic regulators, a track record in PPP and government commitment to a plan and pipeline have all helped draw in private finance. The risk of damaging this huge benefit can partly be met by a commitment to stability. The confirmation of the permanent status of the National Infrastructure Commission, with Armitt as one of the commissioners can only be welcomed.

But we do need a mix of sources of finance. We need different investors, with different appetites for risk, who can support projects at different stages of their lives.

The European Investment Bank has been a crucial part of this mix, providing anchor investment that has allowed many projects to reach financial close.

It is still not clear if exit from the EU means exit from the EIB. If we can stay there is real benefit to the UK. If we can’t, we need to start working on a replacement now.

As the campaign progresses, the ICE will continue to press these points. It is hoped readers will do the same when the candidates knock on their doors.

  • Please address any comments about the Lighthouse column to policy@ice.org.uk

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