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COLUMN SIX

Former Conservative Cabinet minister John Gummer MP puts construction under the spotlight

BRITAIN is a rich nation. But we still rely on an infrastructure which, in parts, is old enough to have been laid down by the Victorians.What is more, we do not seem to have the will to invest in its renewal. Indeed, we are still attacking the very mechanisms that would allow such investment to take place.

For construction, this is disastrous.The need for a continuing, competitive and demanding programme of public works is manifest. Privatisation made this possible, but bureaucratisation is steadily destroying that opportunity.

Water companies that began to transform Britain's outdated system have been so loaded with restriction, so starved of capital and so limited by regulation that only the investment demanded by EU standards will be delivered.The imagination and enterprise that privatisation released has now been chained up by an establishment wedded to control.

So too the railways.We refuse to admit that it is not five years of privatisation that is responsible for chronic underinvestment but half a century of nationalisation. Just as successive governments of both parties have betrayed London by leaving its transport system to rot, so they have failed to rescue schools, hospitals and public housing from a criminal lack of maintenance and upkeep.

Apart from Greece and the Irish Republic, we have the worst infrastructure in Europe for dealing with our waste.We recycle least and landfill most.

Chopping our road programme has not resulted in the diversion of resources into other investment. Instead it has saved public expenditure and made room for the continued inflation of current expenditure elsewhere.

At this point, we British take refuge in blame.The inefficiency and low productivity of the public services has squeezed investment and wasted much of the resource that has been provided. Suspicion of the private sector has inhibited partnership and complicated efforts to build a mixed system.

Electoral considerations have made politicians prefer current spending over capital spending.

Dogma, blinkered trade unions, the short-term City, bureaucracy are all cited as reasons for our third-world infrastructure.The excuses themselves have become the inhibitors of change.

We must break out of this debilitating cycle.We have failed to invest, we blame ourselves for that but we still fail to invest and the Tube crumbles, the railways are filled to capacity, the waste continues unsorted and delays and frustration become the accepted experience of British life.We look increasingly like a national Marconi. Stripped of research and investment, we are frittering away our huge cash pile while honouring the myopic men who preside over our affairs.Unlike Marconi, the day of reckoning has still to come.

If we are to escape that fate, action cannot be long delayed.

We must clear the parliamentary decks to approve infrastructure projects that cannot wait for decades of protracted planning enquiries - CrossRail, Central Railway and Chelsea-Hackney in the rail sector; the go-ahead for Terminal 5 at Heathrow and the urgent decision on more runway capacity in the South-East; the lifting of restriction on water companies' investment; and provision for a modern waste recovery system.

They will do much for the future of construction - and the future of the nation.