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We cannot afford to underinvest in infrastructure

If you need an example of the impact that decent infrastructure - or the lack of it - has on people’s lives, then look no further than New Orleans.

It is five years since Hurricane Katrina caused catastrophic flooding that devastated the city, killed over 2,000 and left hundreds of thousands homeless. For the United States, this event was without question a humbling experience.

Despite its wealth and technological capability, this storm highlighted the nation’s fundamental failure to properly invest in the basic flood defence infrastructure capable of protecting the public from such an event and then coping with the devastation afterwards.

And while a storm of Katrina’s magnitude is hard to plan for, it is clear that the US recognises that, politically, it cannot afford to leave its population so exposed in future.

It took time coming but cash and resources have been made available. Yet despite spending around £10bn on new flood defences, large parts of the city – large numbers of people – remain exposed to the risk of flooding. For these, largely poor, communities the city can still only guarantee warnings and evacuation.

As New Orleans is discovering, providing decent modern infrastructure is not quick, is rarely simple and never cheap. Retrofitting a 100% effective flood defence system is a tough challenge.

And whether you are in a developed nation like the US, or a developing nation like Pakistan, finding sufficient resources to “catch up” past underspending on infrastructure is near impossible.

Here in the UK, we are all too aware of this fact. Look at the on-going challenge facing the UK rail network which, despite massive public investment over the last 10 years, is still struggling to overcome the wholesale underinvestment of preceding decades.

And the approaching tenth anniversary of the Hatfield crash and last month’s Potters Bar inquest remind us that failure to properly invest can easily cost lives.

It is a similar story across the UK’s local roads where virtually every local authority is reporting massive repair and maintenance backlogs. The danger to the public is highlighted graphically this week by the enforced closure in Swansea of a stretch of road which the council cannot afford to make safe following a rock fall.

Such funding shortfalls are expected to get worse with October’s Comprehensive Spending Review poised to axe huge swathes from local authority budgets.

So while we need to continue to make the case for investment in decent modern infrastructure we also need to be aware of the equally real pressure on the public purse.

As NCE continues to stress, the future of infrastructure is about delivering more for less – but as New Orleans demonstrates, it is unlikely to be easy.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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