The economic indicators still point towards continuing pressure on the UK public finances for some considerable time to come. For the civil engineering profession this presents huge threats and major opportunities.
According to Network Rail chairman Rick Haythornthwaite, one of the biggest risks to the delivery of vital new railway infrastructure projects is our failure to make the case for investment. Unless we start an open dialogue with the public about the railway’s place in the UK’s future, he warned, public funding will dry up and plans will soon disappear.
Haythornthwaite was delivering the inaugural George Bradshaw Address at the ICE last week, and, while focused on rail, he underlined the contribution that investment in infrastructure has made to boosting economic growth.
In the rail sector, he pointed out that while the last decade of publicly-funded control periods had been about fixing the railway, improving reliability, and more recently, improving localised capacity. The future would, he said, require much grander visions, highlighting the role of the railway in economic growth.
Referencing the High Speed 2 programme as an example of such visionary projects, he said it was no longer sufficient simply to win cross-party political support. “We need to recognise that political or departmental support without public support does not guarantee success,” he said, adding that failure to win this backing for nationally vital projects puts them at risk.
A quick glance at NCE’s letters pages over the last few months bears this out. In short, projects such as HS2 must focus on convincing the wider public that spending vast sums do actually deliver wider benefits.
“I am not convinced that endless public dialogue makes projects more relevant to the society we serve”
It is certainly a challenge; and I am not entirely convinced that endless dialogue with the public necessarily makes engineering projects more relevant to the society we serve.
What does matter is strong leadership. So it’s interesting that Haythornthwaite chose this speech to announce his planned departure from Network Rail next summer.
Bluntly, if the challenge is so gripping, nationally vital and deliverable then why quit the role? And if he isn’t up for the task, the rail industry and the nation must find a replacement - now, not next July.
As he said, there are many bright minds in the industry considering what is possible and how to boost public dialogue on matters ranging from local interest issues to those of genuine national economic importance.
But there are also many great minds - and many great firms - relying on Network Rail to get 100% behind vital projects such as HS2.
The US is discovering that investment in infrastructure must go beyond stimulus plans to really grasp investment for economic growth. It’s a long-term job that will require long-term commitment from the industry - bottom to top.
- Antony Oliver is NCE’s Editor