Big plans for big spend continue but the delivery challenge remains critical

It has in many ways been a momentous week for infrastructure. Antony Oliver outlines the challenge ahead.

Antony Oliver, Infrastructure Intelligence editor

Monday saw publication of the ground breaking Road Investment Strategy giving, for the first time, a five year forward programme of investment with 84 new schemes, a 25 year vision and a new emphasis on community impact. 

"There is a plan, there is belief and there is commitment. The challenge must be to continue to deliver and prove that a vote for infrastructure is a vote for economic growth."

Tuesday gave us the 2014 iteration of the National Infrastructure Plan which outlined, amongst much else, £2.3bn in flood defence spending, more focus on housing plus a £466bn programme of which 60% is either ready for or already under construction.

And on Wednesday the Chancellor again underlined the Treasury’s support for infrastructure as a key driver for growth with an Autumn Statement that was littered with references to infrastructure activity spreading wealth across the UK including to the Midlands and the new Northern Powerhouse.

There is, in reality, much to celebrate. While, as we were already aware, little of the investment announced was new, we now do have a clearer and more mapped out view of where it will be spent. And that must be positive.

So while economic growth is still slow there is now real momentum growing around infrastructure led by the major project pipeline of Crossrail, HS2 and Thames Tideway but now including a major road investment programme and flood defence upgrade.

Yet speaking to consultants, contractors, suppliers and even some clients, there is also a real sense of caution. Well justified caution built mainly around three areas.

Firstly, there is obvious political risk that, for all the cross party support behind infrastructure investment, still looms large as the General Election approaches.

The hugely uncertain nature of the forthcoming election really does hang heavy. Much of the investment discussed and promised is long committed and so reasonably hard to unwind. However, there is still very credible concern over whether an incoming administration will be able or willing to continue down this path.

Second is the growing spectre of affordability. Whichever way the electorate turns in May there will be no question that balancing the government’s books will not get any easier. While promises have been made, arguments made and won, there will always be a fear that all might be whipped away as swiftly as it arrived.

The good news, of course, is that by changing to the Highways Agency to a Strategic Highways Company the £15bn roads investment is largely reingfenced - as with Network Rail's £38bn five year funding,  any change of heart would have to be ageed by Parliament, making the funding reasonably hard to lop.

But elsewhere the funding concern is real. Much of the promised investment will come from private sources and so will hinge on whether or not there is sufficient confidence in the UK to make the major calls required. And in particular the energy sector continues to underline the basis of this fear.

Finally there is the very real and sadly recurring concern over resources. Once again the industry emerges from recession having failed to invest consistently through the down time in the next generation of skills.

Whichever way we look at addressing the problem, be it through apprenticeships, attracting school leavers, boosting diversity or attracting new entrants from other sectors, the road is long and the target numbers of staff across a huge number of skill areas is huge.

All three are major concerns and big challenges that will certainly test infrastructure professionals’ creativity, resolve and nerve over the coming months and years.

But in so many ways they are good challenges to have. Certainly much better than many of the challenges that have dogged infrastructure over the last few years. 

Now there is a plan, there is belief and there is commitment. The challenge must be to continue to deliver and prove that a vote for infrastructure is a vote for economic growth. 

Antony Oliver is the editor of Infrastructure intelligence.

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