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Embracing uncertainty at the CN Summit

Optimism is in short supply these days. As the cloud of Brexit looms ever larger, and an unstable government does its best to reassure voters, the sense of unease is palpable.

Broadcaster and CN Summit chair Andrew Neil told delegates at Day One of the Construction News Summit today: “Uncertainty has ratcheted up a few notches.”

But for anyone attending the event, there were reasons to be positive. 

While not hugely reassuring, economist Vicky Pryce came out as an unlikely ally of Michael Gove in essentially telling people to ignore Brexit experts.

“Don’t believe a word they tell you,” she said, in relation to forecasters.

Network Rail boss Mark Carne was in bullish form, flagging projects such as the upgrade work at London Bridge, which will help to make the capital more attractive.

Mr Carne also revealed his hopes that work on TransPennine route enhancements will start in its next funding period, CP6, which last month secured £48bn of government backing.

“The future is very bright for us at the moment,” he concluded.

And Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye did his best to inspire and cut through any Brexit bleakness.

“We are at a turning point; it’s a transformational opportunity,” he said, as the airport gears up for what it hopes will be the final green light from parliament next year on expansion.

Even an attempt by Mr Neil to skewer the Heathrow boss’s optimism on final sign-off for a third runway was seen off. “There’s not a doubt in my mind [that expansion will happen],” Mr Holland-Kaye responded.

Nevertheless, the potential shortfall of EU labour post-Brexit continues to hang heavy. As the airport chief admitted: “We are hooked on the drug of EU labour and we can’t rely on that any longer,” he said.

Heathrow is hoping to address that issue by setting up four regional hubs for offsite manufacturing that will take the pressure off recruiting in London.

But there still remains the problem of attracting people to the industry. As former Interserve boss Adrian Ringrose told a panel at the summit this afternoon: “The industry is rubbish at telling its story.”

It’s a familiar cry, but with Brexit on the horizon, it is now essential the industry gets better at attracting talent. 

Blind optimism would be foolish, but spotting future opportunities must be a priority.   

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