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Government is finally listening to calls for infrastructure investment

Tarmac national contracting managing director Paul Fleetham

The Chancellor is unlikely to use his Autumn Statement (29 Nov) to perform a complete U-turn and adopt the ‘Plan B’ being called for by many leading economists.

However, there are signs from government that it is finally listening to calls from our industry and other businesses that new investment in infrastructure is needed to boost economic growth and stimulate our stagnating economy.

It is about time. The Prime Minister has openly admitted that we currently languish 28th in the World Economic Forum’s report on quality of infrastructure. The harsh reality is that our ageing transport networks are having a detrimental effect on our productivity and economic wellbeing.

Many years ago, when UK businesses switched to ‘just in time’ supply chains with low holdings of stock that require predictable journey times, the reliability of transport networks became paramount. The problem we now have is that investment in the UK transport infrastructure has not kept up.

While the government undoubtedly faces tough spending decisions and needs to be carefully guided by the recommendations of Infrastructure UK, our chronically under-funded road network must be an immediate priority.

Time after time, roads have been one of the first areas to be cut.

Highways infrastructure spending is a long way down the political agenda and ministers over the years have routinely failed to understand that road infrastructure has a direct relationship to the growth of our economy. Failure to invest in the strategic management of this vital asset will impact on competitiveness of UK Plc.

After the coalition came to power many important highways schemes were shelved; the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review saw a halving of the Highways Agency’s capital budget and, despite the odd set piece announcement, there has been a complete lack of adequate funding made available for the maintenance of our deteriorating road asset.

Many local authorities are operating highways maintenance budgets today that are up to 25 per cent less than three years ago, with the national annual shortfall now standing at £895 million.

According to this year’s ALARM Survey, we now have nearly 60 per cent more potholes in the UK’s roads than last year. This is an untenable situation for not only Highway Authorities and contractors but also for our customers, the travelling public.

What needs to happen? Firstly, we need the government to commit to more than just one ‘big ticket’ transport scheme such as HS2. A single mode approach will be to the detriment of other transport infrastructure.

Secondly, we need the Chancellor to kick-start the moth-balled road schemes that could drive a substantial economic benefit for a relatively modest investment.  Obvious contenders would include the A14 link between Felixstowe and the Midlands and widening of key junctions around the Tyne Tunnel.

Finally, the government needs to ensure that maintenance budgets are set at adequate levels. Any new roads schemes will be undermined unless they are underpinned by a well-maintained local road network.  That means more funding and of equal importance the ability for greater long-term planning.

Failure to invest in infrastructure now means that we risk an important opportunity to deliver economic growth.  UK Plc desperately needs a new approach. If the coalition government is shying away from acknowledging the need for a Plan B, they can call it Plan ‘A Plus’.

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