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Small crumbs of comfort

Comment

Gordon Brown told the House of Commons two months ago that transport spending would be safe in his comprehensive spending review. But it seems he was not telling the full story.

No matter what spin the government might put on things, it is hard to see how his announcement this week can be considered a victory for transport secretary Alistair Darling.

So while we must wait for the 10 year transport plan update next week to see precisely what carnage this settlement will wreak on the nation's transport plans, it is fairly certain that there will not be much good news for designers and constructors of new infrastructure.

Certainly there will be opportunities for civil engineering on the back of the very real increases announced in spending on health and education.

Here we have a tired building stock that will continue to be updated and maintained and the profession continues to be ideally placed to deliver results.

And it was good to see the government at last accepting that it has a role to play in boosting the numbers entering the science and engineering professions. The plan to increase rewards for science and maths teachers is very welcome. The same goes for the extra funding - albeit modest - to help coordinate the development of science, engineering and technology training around the regions, and to help employers demonstrate to women that engineering has a career for them.

But, as feared, the big prizes in terms of transport spending were not there.

Analysing the Treasury's figures is always tricky, but not too difficult for us to spot the careful switching of public funding in transport towards the railways at the expense of investment in roads. There is also a clear increase in reliance on private cash to fill the gaps.

It is of course no surprise that the railways will sap public cash and we should not shy away from making this commitment.

We already know the scale of long-overdue funding required to repair, revamp and run the national rail network and we know - as the government has been forced to accept - it is considerably more than the price originally thought.

Whether or not it is right to spend this cash at the expense of other transport modes is another matter. After all, there are equally compelling cases for spending on road construction and maintenance, tunnels, tram schemes or new bridges.

What is clear is that the government is still failing to properly prioritise transport infrastructure as core to the nation's wealth creation machine. Business and the public increasingly agree that our inefficient and tired infrastructure is costing us time and money. Yet this conclusion has still not made it to the Treasury.

So although the reality is that once again the government has promised much but delivered only small crumbs to the profession, we should not despair quite yet. While it is obvious that Brown has not been quite as flush with transport cash as he might have us believe, we can still cling to the hope that this much neglected sector will move up the agenda again.

It is a fact that no transport schemes have been singled out for the axe yet and so far there is still a stated commitment to integrated transport in the UK.

There remains, therefore, every reason for the profession to continue to campaign for delivery.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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