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Set aside party politics for infrastructure's sake

Comment

When Tony Blair became the first Prime Minister since the war to answer direct questions from a House of Commons select committee last week it was interpreted by many as a sign that he was trying to move away from the party politics of Westminster in favour of real action.

For without doubt Blair needs to press ahead over the next four years to produce tangible results from the years of high taxation and a buoyant UK economy that has accompanied his time in Downing Street.

Significantly for civil engineering professionals, one of the areas that he specifically highlighted last week was the long overdue renovation of infrastructure and transport networks in the UK. Answering questions from the formidable transport select committee chairman Gwyneth Dunwoody, Blair concluded that cross-party consensus was vital if impact was to be made on traffic congestion across the nation.

Of course this is eminently sensible, but in reality there are many reasons why such a singleminded approach to such an important issue is difficult in Westminster.

The track record of past governments shows just how consistently ministers are forced to think and act within the constraints of their five year terms of government - despite consistent attempts to think more strategically for the nation.

It is not just infrastructure that suffers from such short termism. The current crises in pensions, education and healthcare show how governments have failed to tackle long term issues.

Yet, as Blair has perhaps now realised, infrastructure is much harder to turn around fast. The lead times for the vital projects on the road and rail networks are long. The planning process means that cash cannot simply be put in today to achieve results equivalent to shorter waiting lists in hospitals or smaller class sizes in schools.

As a profession we must assume that this Labour government really wants to make an impact on the nation's infrastructure. And if we are to make the most of this opportunity we must help to achieve the necessary consensus in Westminster to release the cash.

Civil engineers are uniquely able to help politicians set aside divisive party politics by offering sensible solutions to very real problems. It is an opportunity that we must seize now.

Westminster breaks for its summer recess this week, leaving nearly three months to prepare for a huge lobbying onslaught in the autumn. So why not tell your local MP about how the UK's infrastructure should be improved, how we can save lives on the roads, make the trains run better, or reduce urban congestion and pollution. And let the relevant Institution board chairmen hear your ideas and make sure they pass them to decision makers at Westminster.

Blair knows he has a tough job. But if he starts to generate real improvement in our infrastructure now, he stands a better chance of winning the public's approval again in four years' time.

Regardless of party politics, it is in the profession's interest to make sure he makes the right choices. Go out this summer and influence him.

Antony Oliver is the editor of NCE

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