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One year on, the coalition must press on with vital policies

One year on from the birth of Britain’s first coalition government for 70 years and what shape are we in when it comes to infrastructure?

The answer is that we find ourselves in interesting, difficult, challenging and game-changing times. The headlines over the last 12 months have all been around cuts as the government attempts to climb out of the economic mire.

Without question, across the industry the impact will continue to be felt as the public sector turns down its spending and non-essential investment disappears.

Clearly across the board, the coalition has not found this new era of consensual politics plain sailing. The Liberal Democrats, in particular, are now reviewing just how flexible a partner they have to be − and the answer is almost certainly “not quite so”.

There will be plenty more challenges ahead. The economy continues to limp along with construction in particular seeing a large dip over the last few months. Real growth remains something of a future concept.

But for all the gloom, we can take some cheer from the clear understanding by the Coalition that investment in infrastructure is vital to the UK’s future prosperity.

“Without question, across the industry the impact will continue to be felt as the public sector turns down its spending and non-essential investment disappears”

The National Infrastructure Plan and Green Investment Bank plus continued Treasury support for Infrastructure UK demonstrates the strategic thinking across government which is needed to lever in private sector funds.

And at a more basic level, the continued funding for the national rail network and electrification, investment in projects like Crossrail, and the current consultation on a new High Speed Rail network show that the coalition understands the link between decent modern transport and growth.

But these successes can only be considered as the start. There is much more to do if the UK really is to kick-start its recovery. Across the infrastructure sectors dangerous gaps in policy and action still threaten the future.

On transport there is still no real solution to the growing time bomb of congestion and still too little being done to migrate towards a low emission electric vehicle future. Will gridlock be the watershed?

On energy, for all the talk about new nuclear and renewable generation targets we have yet to see the policy framework and carbon floor price needed to enable private sector investment. Energy prices will rise, but will blackouts have to force the issue?

And on waste we still have not worked out how to balance the economics of treating waste as a resource nor solved the on-going problems around planning.

I could go on. What’s happening around water regulation, with airport policy, on housing and planning for instance?

So there are big challenges all around. But of course adversity and change also provide opportunity − it is estimated that £200bn must be spent over the next five years. And if there is one thing the last 12 months have demonstrated it is that the status quo is no longer appropriate.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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