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The state of the nation

NCE has again teamed up with the ICE to produce its second six monthly examination of the UK's infrastructure. The report reveals few tangible improvements but shows that at last there seems to be a real commitment to start. Antony Oliver explains.

Britain's infrastructure has rarely been out of the national news over the last six months. Any problems grab headlines as a matter of course.

The Hatfield train crash looks set to be yet another turning point for the post-privatisation railway. The tragedy killed four passengers - a small number in comparison to those killed on the roads each week, but enough to enrage the media, the public and politicians.

The accident compounded incidents at Ladbroke Grove and Southall to highlight serious conflicts of interest in the rail industry, raising some fundamental questions.

Is it possible to run more trains over long-neglected track while at the same time carrying out the biggest ever programme of repairs?

More importantly, is it possible continuously to improve safety, punctuality and reliability while making enough money to give shareholders a return on their investment?

There are some tough choices to be made, and the fact that we are even having this debate must be good for the civil engineering profession.

For unless the condition of the nation's infrastructure is given high political importance, nothing will be done. This goes for all transport modes as well as the energy, water and waste sectors, and the rules under which these sectors operate.

Now, it seems, these issues are at least on the agenda, and significantly there is the will to spend money, make the vital statutory changes and start to put right the neglect of several decades.

The last report card rated the performance of our infrastructure as average. The public is now demanding better, and with elections just around the corner, the Government appears to be listening.

The report card still measures C, still average.Why no change?

It measures the physical condition of the nation's infrastructure and gauges the political, social and economic will to make improvements.

While little has changed on the ground over the last six months, there have been significant swings in policy and political attitude, a factor taken into account by the report card panel in its latest assessment.

The upward arrow now given to the road sector is an indication that there is a realistic chance for improvements to be made.

The Government's 10-year spending plan unveiled in the summer contained a £180bn promise for roads, rail, local transport and urban development. The challenge has been backed with cash and legislation - the industry's task is to deliver.

However, there is still a serious lack of direction, regulatory guidance and statutory tools in the waste, energy and water industries. Compared to the transport sectors, these have slipped down the pecking order.

Significantly, it is these sectors that have most at stake environmentally. If the UK is seriously to tackle its targets for sustainability these industry sectors will have a huge role to play.

Spread the word

The State of the Nation report card is over the page. We are distributing 500 to politicians, decision makers and the media. You can spread the word too by photocopying it and circulating it to anyone that you feel should know about the condition of our infrastructure.

The report card

Our expert panel reviewed each sector - road, rail, energy, waste, local transport, urban regeneration, and the environment.

As well as providing comments they awarded each a grade to reflect its condition.

Grades ranked from A = good, B = fair, C = average, D = poor, E = bad.

The arrow indicates whether the situation is improving or declining.

The sustainability grade reflects the how well the environmental and social concerns are being integrated with economic issues.

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