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Without government support and investment the UK will fall behind

Despite being an eternal optimist when it comes to the fortunes of the UK civil engineering and infrastructure market, I can’t help but feel slightly concerned this week about the current progress being made by the UK economy.

In short, if we are not very careful, before this decade is out, China will be eating our lunch. And probably our breakfast and dinner too. Our current lumbering growth rate of around 2% is likely to be outstripped across Europe and the rest of the world.

At least the US remains committed to the concept of driving forward its economy− and by doing so eating into its deficit − with investment in infrastructure. Witness this week’s $53bn (£33bn) Federal funding commitment to a national high-speed and intercity passenger rail network over the next six years.

By contrast, UK government seems caught up with personal “missions” to encourage all of us to spend our non-working hours doing what ordinarily we might consider it right and sensible to leave to professionals. Or, at the very least, to those with the time and resources to do it properly.

So, rather than following the US with vital public commitment to new long term programmes, infrastructure minister Lord Sassoon this week simply emphasised the perennial importance of eliminating the peaks and troughs in demand.

Rather than shouting from the roof tops about the clear value to the UK economy of investment in decent modern infrastructure, he remained routed in “informal” discussion about boosting communication between government departments over spending.

Certainly it is true that the UK must cut its budget deficit, but the impact of the massive slashing of public expenditure does not appear to have been worked out.

While it is true that public money can probably be spent more efficiently by engaging the private sector − witness the recent Manchester waste and Birmingham roads deals − simply slashing funding risks killing the very private sector firms needed to deliver that efficiency.

“It is an uphill battle, but we have to continue to beat the drum for what we know is right. Fortunately, as we have seen with the threatened sale of forests, policy can quickly be adjusted”

It is an uphill battle, but we have to continue to beat the drum for what we know is right. Fortunately, as we have seen lately with the threatened sale of forests, votes for prisoners and bankers bonuses, policy can quickly be adjusted.

We still have a world-beating talent in the UK civil engineering profession − talent worthy of celebrating with the newly launched NCE Awards (see p.11) − and world-leading innovative ideas. The challenge will be to ensure that we still have the work on which to bring this innovation to bear.

NCE has, this week, taken our own small step into the world of innovation with the launch of our digital weekly version on iPad − a first for our market. Just like the rest of the industry, we know that without investment to stay ahead of the status quo, we will very quickly find ourselves behind.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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