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We need to keep banging on about investment

Summer’s over, the sun’s still shining and we head once more towards the annual political party conference season. Whoopee!

But hang on a minute. Next year will see a General Election and by all accounts the first major regime change in Whitehall for 13 years. Surely events over the next couple of months should have more significance than usual.

Because don’t forget that for once, infrastructure and the built environment look set to remain on the agenda. Of course, health, education and social policy remain the big vote winners, but there is still commitment across the party politics spectrum to driving the faltering economy through investment in the public realm.

“Politicians and economists appear to have grasped the concept that investment in the real assets of railways, roads, power supplies, water distribution and flood defence is money well spent and a driver for recovery.”

Right now there is a glut of major projects either on the go or in planning and contributing to the UK’s slow but steady rise from recession. Politicians and economists appear to have grasped the concept that investment in the real assets of railways, roads, power supplies, water distribution and flood defence is money well spent and a driver for recovery. But it is very clear that it all comes at a price.

No matter who inherits 10 Downing Street next Spring they will face the same reality of high public debt and reduced public income. Chancellor Alistair Darling’s plan to mitigate this by selling off assets such as the Dartford Crossing and British Waterways may have some impact, but public spending will still inevitably have to suffer.

The fly in the ointment

Now is therefore a good moment for the long awaited creation of a chief construction advisor within the civil service to champion the cause. The fly in the ointment is that the role will split its loyalties between the Treasury and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills. While this could give the role a greater spread of influence across Whitehall it will more likely result in a tug of war between departments.

“The role must help government understand the real benefits of continued investment in decent modern infrastructure.”

In addition the role is part time adviser rather than a full time devoted officer. Certainly this will ensure that whoever gets the job will retain a strong grounding in the industry and so be better qualified to speak and argue on its behalf.

But surely if government is serious about engaging with a sector employing 2.8M people and representing 9% of GDP the role must command full time representation.

The critical thing now is to ensure that the selection panel chooses the right person for the job. A person who will really take construction and engineering to the heart of government. The role must get beyond the usual discussions around procurement, efficiency and training and get stuck into the job of helping government understand the real benefits of continued investment in decent modern infrastructure.

There is momentum behind the need to invest in infrastructure right now but economic pressures mean it will come under threat. Over the next six months we have to restate the case over and over again. Non stop.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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