Remember that survey you had done when you bought your house? Recall the list of jobs that a surveyor reckoned were needed, before it got shoved to the back of a drawer.
It is not uncommon for new house buyers to start on the list with zeal, then their money and enthusiasm runs out. The distraction of paint-charts and new curtains becomes too great, pushing the dull but worthy jobs to the bottom of the to do list.
So it can be with countries and their infrastructure. For so long now, the UK has been frittering away money on nice-to-haves like off-shore wind farms and Olympic Parks, that it has failed to ensure that it has got the basics right.
That is why we are running out of road space, our trains are pushed to capacity, we have not managed to build a new airport runway in more than 50 years in the South East of England and critically we do not have enough power stations to keep the lights on beyond 2023.
The World Economic Forum ranked the UK at number 19th in the world for the quality of its infrastructure in 2006, now it has us at 24th.
It is high time we got serious and if Theresa May is like the new home owner, then Balfour Beatty’s shopping list of future infrastructure need over the next 35 years, published today, landed at just the right time.
According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, net public sector investment, which includes spending in addition to infrastructure investment, fell from £51.5 billion in 2009 – or 3.4 % of GDP – to 1.8% of GDP in 2015-16. The government’s own forecasts show that spending will continue to fall further between now and 2020.
For years now there has been a lot of talk about spending on infrastructure – Osborne’s “We are the builders” – but the reality is that spending has declined.
Of course Balfour Beatty’s shopping list was intended to be delivered to the previous tenant of Number 10. Like most of the establishment, Balfour Beatty, one of the company’s biggest engineering and contracting groups, did not foresee the Brexit verdict of 24 June.
But the Brexit development has lent a more urgent tone to the builders’ wish list and the first two pages of the 16 page document deal with the particular problems leaving the EU will bring: from acute labour and skills shortages to the loss of billions of pounds of infrastructure funding provided from the European Investment Bank.
It is a good job that Mrs May has already signaled her desire to use investment in infrastructure as a way of rebuilding the economy in the wake of exiting the EU, because Balfour Beatty has no fewer than 21 recommendations to make to the Government regarding infrastructure in roads, rail, aviation, energy, nuclear decommissioning and flooding.
Do we really need to tell the Government that “future infrastructure must be better planned and co-ordinated” or that a far-reaching vision should be set out for the national rail network”? Yes, it seems we do.
One of the most interesting passages of this short report, however, is a section dealing with the future in which the difficulty of making long-term plans becomes apparent.
Right now most drivers would suggest that roads – congested and pothole ridden – require more spending. But the report points out that self-driving cars on motorways could safely drive closer together and in narrower lanes, thus freeing up space for more cars – and ultimately reducing the attractions of train travel on many routes.
Infrastructure has historically been built to respond to a specific problem – crossing a river, or getting rid of sewage in the streets. Future needs are rarely considered and consequently infrastructure has quickly reached capacity or become unfit for purpose.
Balfour Beatty suggests that in the future smart networks and buildings will provide data and feedback to help plan buildings and infrastructure more effectively. The inputs from smart buildings and other sources could be used to model future demand and also future weather and climate patterns, so that infrastructure is more resilient and adaptable.
It all sounds very futuristic and laudable but back in the here and now, with interest rates at historic lows and the construction industry having just reported its worst monthly figures for seven years, Balfour Beatty must have been tempted to write a much shorter wish list. Spend, spend, spend.
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