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Brexit means era of ‘government must’ is numbered

There has been a lot of noise about infrastructure and Brexit: some of it informed, much of it not.

Around the world I pick up some consistent messages.

Firstly, foreign investors like the UK: we have a sound regulatory framework, strong legislative oversight, corruption is rare, and we are trusted.

Secondly, the UK has a reputation (paradoxically one that is often not recognised within the country itself) for delivering on time, on budget and to a high level of quality.

Thirdly, our professional services industry is arguably the global leader. This won’t change soon: we should not talk ourselves into a crisis.

Set out the real needs

Of course we all instinctively know there are challenges. For one, we need a skilled workforce. And to remain attractive to investors, UK R&D must still thrive; to export our goods and services, we must comply with international standards and regulations.

But many of these challenges have always been the case. As an industry, we should separate the norm from the immediate needs of Brexit negotiators. Frankly, the government has a lot on and it needs help to get the best deal for the UK, not a long list of industry asks.

“More than half of the construction workforce in the South-east come from the EU. Negotiators need to recognise this”

ICE president Sir John Armitt has convened a number of senior pan-industry groups to examine improved infrastructure delivery. One produced the UK National Needs Assessment last October, which featured heavily in the Autumn Statement. Another looked at Brexit, with a number of points coming out of that work.

We don’t build infrastructure for the sake of it: every pound we spend generates nearly £3 of economic growth, and of that pound more than 90 per cent is spent locally. The government has a £500bn pipeline of projects – £300bn planned before 2020/21.

Private engagement

More than half of the planned investment will come from private investors. We need to engage them and have a really sensible discussion about risk and affordability – not just during construction, but across the life of an asset.

The European Investment Bank invested €31.2bn in the UK between 2012 and 2016, mostly in infrastructure projects. Over the same period the Treasury UK Guarantees scheme has helped get projects off the ground. So we need to look carefully at how we can draw on similar levels of investment.

More than half of the construction workforce in the South-east of England, and 10 per cent nationally, come from the EU. Negotiators need to recognise this.

There will be long-term solutions, hopefully based around better education in schools and colleges. But in the short term someone still needs to build the infrastructure that drives growth. The government will need to look at that too.

Brexit is coming. For years we have heard a mantra of ‘government must’ rather than ‘industry solve’. This government might be about to change that.

Nick Baveystock is director-general of the Institution of Civil Engineers

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