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We have to deliver a lot more for a lot less

It is clear from the comments in this week’s NCE Local Government File that local authority highways teams are going to find life becoming tough over the next few years.

With all shades of the political spectrum promising cuts in public spending from 2011, there is legitimate cause for concern among the engineering community at the coal face charged with the difficult task of delivering to ever increasing community needs. But is it really so bleak for the engineering community going forward? Perhaps not.

It is an overused phrase but the flooding in Cumbria last month certainly did highlight the vital role that local infrastructure plays in the lives of communities. Failure of part of that infrastructure system causes danger, discomfort, inconvenience and real loss.

“If nothing else it will have provided yet more cast iron evidence of the value of investment in decent, modern and capable public infrastructure.”

If nothing else it will have provided yet more cast iron evidence of the value of investment in decent, modern and capable public infrastructure and in the engineering services that keep it all up and running. Nevertheless the economic realities of a nation up to its eyes in debt are that the amounts available to invest in such infrastructure will fall − perhaps by up to 30%.

The question is therefore, what to do about this reality. How will local authority engineering teams meet this apparently insurmountable challenge?

The answer of course is to change the way the problem is tackled. The answer is to think radically about what exactly we are being asked to do, leave behind inefficient ways of the past and concentrate on meeting the needs of future communities within the constraints of much tighter budgets.

It will be challenging because of course the repair, maintenance and renewal of highway and drainage infrastructure has already seen radical overhaul in the last decade.

“Yes we will have to spend less but the future of local authority infrastructure management must be about doing things differently.”

We have seen a huge amount of outsourcing, private sector involvement, private sector funding and have learnt a huge number of lessons about what does and doesn’t work. Without question this process has uncovered a mass of new ideas and introduced new efficiencies.

But the future must involve a lot more of this kind of thinking and must offer both the public and private sector greater opportunities for more change and more innovation.

Because it cannot just be about stripping out cost. Yes we will have to spend less but the future of local authority infrastructure management must be about doing things differently, focusing on the real needs of the local communities.

The future will have to involve far more insight into what communities actually need and value from their infrastructure and see engineers having to change the way that they think about prioritisation.

In short we have to deliver a lot more for a lot less. Not just more of what we already do, but more of what really counts. And as a taxpayer, I’m excited about that prospect.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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