So at long last the cat is out of the bag. Briefings, previews and speculation have at last made way for cold hard fact about the scale of the cuts to be made to the nation’s public spending. The government’s long awaited Comprehensive Spending Review has been published.
Sadly, it all happened 18 hours after NCE went to press, which of course makes writing a comment on the subject something of a high risk business. So I won’t make any statements about Crossrail being given the go ahead or comment on the merits or otherwise of any decisions about the likely project programme.
Nor will I be drawn into making any comments about any other public funding for the rail network, road network, or any other major investments in public infrastructure because right now, as I write this, we simply still do not know for sure.
Nor will we, I suspect, for some time to come. The full implications of an £83bn, five year programme of spending cuts will inevitably contain a few grey areas – not least given that so many of the public infrastructure investments so vital to this industry continue well beyond this particular economic window.
Fortunately this has been a busy week for government announcements regarding infrastructure. In particular in the hugely important energy sector, where energy secretary Chris Huhne this week deftly wielded his double edged sword.
“They are critical decisions in a critical sector which is likely to command 50% of the nation’s investment over the next few decades as we battle to keep the lights on”
On the one hand, via, it must be said, an intriguingly stealthy approach to subsidy, he boosted the prospects for new nuclear in the UK.
By limiting the potential liability for nuclear waste and the decommissioning programmes he has, at a stroke made private sector investment in the sector altogether more palatable.
Yet simultaneously he dashed the aspirations of those hoping to win public support for the Severn Barrage tidal power scheme. The cost of bringing such a scheme to reality was, he predictably concluded, just too high.
And to be fair, neither decision could have been described as easy for Huhne, a Liberal Democrat. Each carried serious political consequence and substantial long term public sector cost and liability. But he did make them. They are critical decisions in a critical sector which is likely to command 50% of the nation’s investment over the next few decades as we battle to keep the lights on.
Hence, perhaps, the private sector’s continued desire to make the barrage plans stack up. Writing this on Tuesday at NCE’s Infrastructure Show, I can at least be sure that this coalition government is capable of taking tough choices – albeit while operating in its honeymoon period.
But it is also clear that it recognises that taking such tough decisions is vital if we are to win the private sector infrastructure investment required to transform the nation’s infrastructure and drive beyond talk of cuts.
And as the chief executive of Infrastructure UK reminded us at the Infrastructure Show, the potential investment over the next 10 years is £500bn. And that’s a very large prize to chase even after cuts of 20% to 30%.
- Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor