Eighteen months into the coalition government and it is unsurprising, given the administration’s continued commitment to national debt reduction, that there was little talk at the party conferences about the role of infrastructure investment in the recovery.
Infrastrucure no-show at the conferences
Given that the world economy remains in turmoil and the spectre of double dip recession looms large, there is understandably little desire to talk about anything other than how to avoid spending public cash.
Yet only one year ago the government revealed its inaugural National Infrastructure Plan to lever in £200bn of spending. To a fanfare of applause, this set out a commitment to upgrading the UK’s transport, energy and communications infrastructure and a pathway to levering in private sector support to restore the nation’s confidence and competitiveness.
So while we wait for the updated plan to be published, we must remain convinced (if only because politicians keep telling us it’s true) that the government remains just as committed to the concept of infrastructure as a driver for growth.
Because, as Thames Water’s new Thames Tunnel managing director Michael Gerrard pointed out this week to a gathering of industry leaders, infrastructure is now a critical social issue. In short, as he put it, it is our duty to ensure that the infrastructure we leave to our children is as good if not better that the infrastructure that we inherited.
He is absolutely right. Recent generations have lived, almost without conscience, off the infrastructure investments made by our great grandparents. Our wonderfully full lifestyles have been made possible by not having to worry about funding the infrastructure underpinning economic growth.
“Recent generations have lived, almost without conscience, off the infrastructure investments made by our great grandparents”
Bazalgette’s now overflowing sewers in London; the over-stretched and creaking Victorian rail network; the leaking water networks; the outdated and inefficient power stations; the clogged motorway system.
We have clearly failed to take economic or social responsibility for replacing or upgrading the infrastructure.
Hence it is now the great social issue − investing in decent modern infrastructure is vital if our children are to avoid being saddled, not just with the debts of the generations before, but also with the repair bill.
So when David Cameron talks about social fairness and growth he must recognise that public investment in infrastructure is an investment that ticks so many boxes.
As I highlighted last week, we must certainly ensure that we minimise the cost of infrastructure delivery by specifying sensibly and constructing efficiently.
But if we are really trying build a new fairer society while rebuilding a battered global economy, continued, vocal commitment to infrastructure investment is the key.
- Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor