Encouraging signs from Sunak, but more pipeline progress needed

Construction businesses need to see more tangible signs of the next phase of investment in the government's infrastructure pipeline.

While Rishi Sunak’s budget speech contained much encouragement for the construction sector, businesses now need to see more tangible signs of the roadmap out of lockdown, write’s ACE’s Hannah Vickers.

Rishi Sunak’s budget speech was threaded through with numerous references to his vision for an economic recovery driven by investment in a low carbon-built environment. We heard him talk of “old industrial sites being used to capture and store carbon”, “offshore wind turbines creating clean energy for the country” and “innovative fast-growing businesses hiring local people into decent well paid green jobs”. Turn to the Treasury documents accompanying the speech and the same themes were repeated in slightly more prosaic Treasury language, with multiple references to Project Speed, world-beating levels of capital investment and so on.   

ACE members are crucial to making these aspirations a reality. As our recent briefs on Project Speed showed, consultancies have the capabilities and skills needed for the ‘better, greener, faster’ built environment investment we all want. So, the question that interests me about the budget is, whether the fiscal and policy decisions the chancellor is making will enable us to do what we do best?

In terms of short-term business support, the answer is yes. The ‘super-deduction’ for business investment could also play a useful role in enabling the ongoing investment in digital capability our firms need to make. At the same time the increase in the apprentice grant will enable us to invest in the skills of young people so that they can be part of this revolution. 

Looking at the broader policy environment, again, I think there are some encouraging signs. The freeports and city deals announcements are exactly the sort of holistic, low carbon regeneration programmes that we need if we are to simultaneously create jobs, level up opportunities and hit net zero. But the infrastructure bank must also play its part. The Treasury’s scoping document setting out how the bank will operate is encouraging, taking on board many of the Construction Leadership Council’s regeneration proposals which ACE helped develop. The trick for the bank will be to use its powers to enable ambitious integrated regeneration investments across the UK, whilst avoid getting fixated on individual project deals.      

Where the future is less clear, is on the long-term pipeline which an industry like ours relies upon for its viability. The budget reaffirmed the November 2020 spending review’s commitments, but we are likely to see a three-year spending review in the autumn at a time when the chancellor will be under mounting pressure to live up to his commitments to start bringing down the deficit. We will need to be on our guard to ensure that the broad cross-party consensus on the need for sustained high levels of infrastructure and built environment spend are not eroded as the national debt nears 100% of GDP. 

In the meantime, I would hope for some movement between now and then around the integrated rail plan promised within the next three months and tangible movement on the freeports commitments. This would signal a roadmap out of lockdown for the sector and into the next phase of investment in the pipeline and, in turn, business and employment growth.

Hannah Vickers is the chief executive of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering.