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Our future prosperity is in need of a clear, bold vision

Antony Oliver

The 2012 NCE Consultants File is included with this week’s issue. It shows that, while the UK civil engineering market remains tough, we are at last seeing an optimistic view of the future.

Fee incomes are back on the up and the outlook predicted by business leaders in the sector is overwhelmingly one of growth in the home market and growth overseas.

That aspiration is coupled with the reality that consultants are recruiting. The demand for experienced staff and graduates brings overall technical staff numbers almost back to 2008 levels, and underlines that fact that, for many, an economic corner is being turned.

In fact, last week’s Consultants Awards lunch was buzzing with the cautious optimism of firms seeing light at the end of the cost cutting, margin squeezing, staff-reduction tunnel. The sight, perhaps, of order book entries replacing hand-to-mouth existence.

Government commitment

It is a confidence that certainly comes from company bosses now feeling excited by the government’s commitment to a National Infrastructure Plan and its renewed appreciation of infrastructure as an economic force.

Yet it is plain that this optimism also comes largely from the reality of other governments embracing such thinking and investing our expertise. Any assessment of UK consultants’ fortunes points quickly to success in the Gulf, the US and in the Asia Pacific regions.

As Association for Consultancy and Engineering chairman Paul Hamer pointed out at the awards lunch, for all the positives for UK business in the recent budget - and there were a few - realistically we cannot expect much in the way of recovery until 2013 at the earliest.

However, Hamer did also flag the government’s renewed commitment to growth including local enterprises partnerships and the ability of cities to use tax increment financing to fund infrastructure. This regional focus, he said could be a potential kick start for UK consultancy. It was a point echoed by Channel 4 political correspondent Michael Crick speaking at the awards. He emphasised that the coalition was now moving - or being forced to move - consciously from its initial deficit cutting, public spending squeeze policies towards a new and vital growth agenda.

He highlighted the continued government desire to follow London’s model and devolve power to elected city mayors across the UK. This, he said, meant there were likely to be even more champions demanding infrastructure investment to create their 21st century political legacies.

Because, as we see across the globe, infrastructure development is not just about providing social facilities such as transport networks, water supplies or power stations.

Successful, fundable infrastructure is about creating legacies - physical, social, emotional and economic - as our politicians are increasingly aware. Going beyond the simple need argument, and embracing the entire legacy will be critical if we are to deliver the infrastructure that the nation craves.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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