Rumours that Chancellor George Osborne is planning a £50bn programme of privately funded road and housebuilding as the centrepiece to his growth strategy should set pulses racing among UK civil engineers.
Private finance is the future
However, whether or not it also sets pulses racing among potential infrastructure investors is perhaps slightly more important. The reality is that the future for UK infrastructure has to be increasingly privately financed, funded by tolls and user charges and operated outside the clutches and constraints of the public sector.
Yet sadly, to date, there has been too little policy to help it happen.
We will have to wait until the end of the month to see just what is planned alongside Osborne’s Autumn statement. But on the face of it the signs are looking positive.
It appears that government now agrees in principle that investment in infrastructure is the key to economic recovery − more specifically, private investment in infrastructure.
Because there is a huge amount of private funding waiting to invest in projects and infrastructure that deliver decent, steady, guaranteed returns over a long timescale.
“The challenge for Osborne as he rolls forward his infrastructure-backed plan for growth is how to remove the planning and policy obstacles that exist across all sectors”
And there are a huge number of potential schemes, not just in the road and housing sectors, that could leap forward given the oxygen of investment.
It is, of course, a message that the engineering profession has been championing for some time now. And as out-going ICE director general Tom Foulkes points out this week, the views of engineering professionals now seem increasingly to be not only sought by government departments but are also now acted upon.
Not lobbying but proper, professional, strategic thinking.
As a result, the Treasury and other key government departments now have a much clearer appreciation not only of what can be achieved with investment but also, critically, what stops this investment from happening.
The challenge for Osborne as he rolls forward his infrastructure-backed plan for growth is how to remove the planning and policy obstacles that exist across all sectors.
Of course, one of the biggest challenges of increasing the use of private investment will be to convince the public that they will increasingly have to pay at source for services that once were provided by the state.
Not least in roads where it will inevitably require some form of tolling to deliver the revenue returns necessary.
As NCE highlighted last week, for many that concept will be difficult to bear. But bear it and adapt to it we must.
Across the sectors of civil engineering and infrastructure we must embrace − and sell to the public − a new paradigm for delivering the once-public realm.
That decent modern infrastructure has value, must be valued and must be paid for. The days of the public sector picking up the bill are over.
- Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor