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Thatcher's children cannot afford to take infrastructure for granted

Mark Hansford

“We are hugely complacent about our infrastructure. We certainly don’t see why we should have to pay more for it.”

New Year 2014: same old stories on the TV news.

First, we cut to London’s King’s Cross station where the intrepid reporter is busy getting commuters to moan over a modest 3% fare rise.

These being the same rail commuters who also moan about their train being standing room only, often late and occasionally cancelled.

Then it is over to a small town somewhere in the Home Counties where another reporter is standing ankle-deep in a flooded kitchen. There, he or she is listening to the homeowner who is furious about the town’s planned but unbuilt flood defences. This being the same homeowner who knowingly bought the house in a flood plain many years ago and just assumed everything would be alright.

Back in the studio we fill some airtime by stewing over the annual energy price hike, with pundits aplenty dropping in to lambast it as a national disgrace. These the same pundits who seem to think power stations build themselves for nothing.

One thing always unites these interest groups – their age. It’s an age I can identify with – because it’s my age.

It’s an age where we don’t remember the daily power cuts during the miners’ strike of 1974; we don’t remember the standpipes in the streets during the heatwave of 1976; and we don’t remember seeing the rubbish piled high when the bin men went on strike in the 1978/79 Winter of Discontent.

Because we’re Thatcher’s Children – those who were brought up during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership and for whom everything has just worked. It worked then with almost zero investment, and it still does.

So as a bunch we are hugely complacent about our infrastructure. We certainly don’t see why we should have to pay more for it. We’re children of the ’80s after all – the era of Gordon Gekko and “greed is good” and every man (or woman) for themselves.

I think that’s a point lost on many who set themselves out as proponents of investment in infrastructure. They’re simply from a different generation. Sorry.

It’s a big problem because, as voters, my generation is becoming hugely important; there is now a lot of us. And we’re disengaged. We are not party-political but are likely to vote for whoever promises the lowest taxes or to keep open our local school or A the infrastructure will just work as it always has. And if it doesn’t we’ll moan about it on TV.

Which is probably why chancellor George Osborne is this week threatening another £25bn of cuts after the next General Election to get borrowing down; he, like all other parties, fears raising taxes to pay the bills.

We – you – as engineers know what needs to be done. But how do you convince the likes of me (but not me; I’m convinced) that we need to pay more for it?

We – you – need to get more vocal. That’s the challenge for 2014. Are you up for it?

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s interim editor

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