As the dust starts to settle on the government’s spending review and the plethora of associated reports filter out, I have to say I’m starting to feel pretty positive about the future for civil engineers.
This week’s first ever National Infrastructure Plan is particularly exciting. It finally puts the need for decent modern infrastructure at the heart of the economic recovery and, significantly, places the Chancellor of the Exchequer in charge of delivering it.
Incoming ICE President Peter Hansford is absolutely right to be, as he puts it this week’s issue, “very optimistic about the future”. The spending review overtly sheltered infrastructure investment from the worst of the cuts and now we see a comprehensive commitment to investing £200bn over five years.
“The infrastructure investment programme will help rebalance the economy across all regions, and give industries the right conditions in which to grow, as well as itself providing a stimulus to short term growth,” says the review document.
This is surely the “value of infrastructure to the economy” message that we have been waiting for. Who wouldn’t be optimistic?
Well, in reality, perhaps a few. Because it isn’t, of course, all a bed of roses out there right now. Nor will it be.
It would be wrong to pretend that life isn’t going to be – or continue to be – tough for many in the profession right now. Given the colossal amounts that have just been lopped from public spending across the board there will be much pain across many sectors.
Local authorities, in particular, will find the next few years very challenging as they wrestle with this new austerity and prioritise which services they keep going. And given the number of major road schemes halted last week there will be little cheer for engineers working in that sector or among the huge number of firms in the associated supply chain.
Let us not also forget those already caught up in the social housing and schools construction downturn.
However, we cannot overlook the very real commitment that has been shown to infrastructure, in particular to the energy and transport sectors, both of which are clearly the heartland of civil engineering.
Yes, we have a massive mountain to climb in terms of demonstrating that UK infrastructure can be delivered at an affordable cost. And make no mistake we have to get our house in order. Unlike the past, future projects will not be built – with either public or private cash – if they are not affordable.
It will be a monumental task to shift our approach from the current uncoordinated sector bun-fight towards a more holistic infrastructure vision capable of driving us towards a new low carbon economy
But, no question, we are being given a magnificent – and long awaited – opportunity to finally get stuck into the problem. And to show what we can do.
This is our chance to copy our Victorian masters by harnessing public support, private investment, innovation, engineering excellence and entrepreneurship to create the world class infrastructure needed to underpin our own 21st century economic growth.
- Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor