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To reap future rewards, we need to invest now

I was lucky enough this week to have been asked to the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers’ autumn lunch courtesy of former ICE president and current Smeatonian Society president Gwilym Roberts.

This lunch is a particularly significant event as the society, which was founded back in 1771, is marking the 250th anniversary of John Smeaton’s Eddystone Lighthouse. Down in the south west they have been lighting what remains of it − the Smeaton Tower monument − on Plymouth Hoe with candles to celebrate (see ICE News).

Smeaton’s lighthouse sat on the Eddystone Rocks for almost 120 years protecting millions of pounds worth of shipping, their cargoes and their crews from disaster.

“Construction that might seem costly at the time it is built tends to outlast generations. And it pays us back on our investment many times over.”

The people who commissioned Smeaton to build his lighthouse were unlikely to have considered it would still be lauded and lit 250 years later. Likewise the Victorian builders who put up my terraced house for about £100 would be amazed at how much it costs to buy now (as are we all!).

And that Victorian terraces 150 years later are a vital part of 21st century housing stock and likely to be for a long time to come.

This week NCE is celebrating the 50th birthday of the M1 opening − another piece of infrastructure that does not look likely to go out of fashion anytime soon. But the people who planned and built it did not realise at the time just how busy and economically important the motorway system would become. They had a vision but it was one that was massively eclipsed by reality.

Construction that might seem costly at the time it is built tends to outlast generations. And it pays us back on our investment many times over to the benefit of our children and our children’s children.

“The challenge for them and all of us with an election coming up is to get our politicians, who struggle to see further ahead than five years, to understand the same.”

A big scary number like the £23.3M for the first section of M1 in 1959 is almost small change in a society that thinks about its infrastructure in billions in 2009. Likewise those billions in 2009 are going to seem like a really good deal a hundred years hence for people using the power stations, railways, schools and hospitals we put up for them now − particularly against current population growth projections.

So it is great news this week to see the Infrastructure Planning Commission, the CBI and the UK Contractors Group all pushing the case that investment has to be planned now to meet the needs of the future, and it will accumulate huge returns in wealth creation and economic benefit for the country (see News).

The challenge for them and all of us with an election coming up is to get our politicians, who struggle to see further ahead than five years, to understand the same − that what they build now will bring glory to them and pay back to the country and its people 10, 20, 50 and 100 years hence.

I have a feeling that the glory angle might be the one to focus on however!

  • Jackie Whitelaw is NCE’s deputy editor

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