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Roll up your sleeves and fight for infrastructure


Some good news at last for civil engineers - central government has delivered the cash needed to repair the worst of the damage caused by last summer's dry weather.

Fair enough, the multi-million pound package is but a mere drop in the ocean of government finances. But for the local authorities the windfall is significant. It represents a slab of their annual road maintenance budgets and means they will now be able to keep their road networks safe, open to traffic and properly repaired.

And perhaps more significantly, they will not now have to eat into other parts of their precious resources to enable this basic service to be fulfilled.

It also proves that if we make a bit of noise, highlight the extent of the problem to local, regional and national government, and then construct a decent case for investment, good sense will prevail.

As we all know, it is the construction of a decent case that will eventually win the day when it comes to convincing Treasury officials that more cash for infrastructure is a good idea. But it is important to catch their eye in the first place. Making a stand, publicising the problem and shouting about the consequences will have helped to catch attention and win support.

This ability to win the hearts of the people has not been the civil engineer's greatest strength lately. We have tended to be more content to sit on the moral high ground rather than get down in the dirt of the fight to really explain the arguments.

As a result we have perhaps tended to give the impression that spending money and building things is the engineer's solution to every problem. All projects have tended to be tarred with this same brush.

In reality this is far from true.

But it is an impression that prevails and one we must be aware of when making our case, particularly while, disturbingly, some high profile members of the profession seem intent on perpetuating the myth.

While the arguments get more complex, our explanations must get simpler. As the pressure on government cash increases, we must emphasise the value that infrastructure investment brings to the nation.

Fortunately this is not a new challenge. As you will no doubt have seen on the numerous TV programmes on the legacy of Victorian engineers, salesmanship and the art of persuasion was key to the success of all these pioneering folk. And there are a few more recent examples of 'impossible' infrastructure that exist because of the dogged determination of engineers to convince investors of the wider benefits.

But then, as now, the simple arguments usually migrate most readily to the surface. We see clearly that faced with the very real prospect of having to close large parts of the local road network, finding a small amount of cash becomes quite straightforward.

Our cover story this week highlights another prime example of how the failure to invest a relatively small amount will have much bigger ramifications than are perhaps apparent on the surface. NCE's Stop the Transport Cuts campaign highlights others.

We must roll up our sleeves and fight our case for all these schemes. But we must also fight smart and ensure that our message is relevant, understandable and realistic.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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