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Revive the plan for transport

AGENDA Viewpoint

It is essential for the Government to commit to a positive transport policy, says Peter Heathershaw

THE 10-Year Plan is dead.Although some will try tell us over the coming months that reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated, contractors can say in all honesty that they know less now about the Government's intentions for road and rail investment than they did four years ago, when the plan was published.

The plan was supposed to give the delivery agencies and their suppliers the ability to plan ahead and gear up to deliver to the Government's infrastructure programmes.Four years on, and we are plunged back into darkness by the Transport White Paper, which fails to set out even the most basic level of information that is vital if we are to plan with any kind of certainty or confidence.

If contractors are given a clear timetable for the release of work, with workload steady or expanding, they are encouraged to be innovative, both technically and financially, and to invest more in workforce training and in modern equipment.When that happens, productivity is raised and quality of the work and on-site safety is improved. Costs are reduced in real terms over the whole life of the asset, not just construction, passing on real value to the end-users or taxpayers, who ultimately pick up the major part of the bill.

Delivering meaningful improvement in transport infrastructure takes a long time and is not an immediate vote-grabber.

It is no surprise, then, that contractors are wondering whether, given that a general election seems likely next year, the funds already earmarked for transport might be diverted into areas where a noticeable difference can be made more quickly than in roads or rail.

The demise of the 10-Year Plan has led to a growing feeling that transport has slipped down the order of the Government's political priorities, which will hit contractor confidence.

One early impact of that loss of confidence will be that contractors will be less willing to invest in training and expanding their workforce.An expected hiatus in workload can be allowed for, but contractors are being given no idea about the level of work they can expect, so it should come as no surprise if employment prospects for the young people who want to join our industry start to evaporate or they look elsewhere for a career.

The Civil Engineering Contractors Association is not asking the Government for more spending on transport infrastructure.The spending profile outlined in the 10-Year Plan was a sustainable, sensible allocation.

What CECA will put forward are a set of recommendations for a positive transport policy built on the principles of clarity, consistency and continuity.

Clarity: giving a clear statement of intent with a timetable of major projects.Consistency: both sticking to the plan and, most importantly, releasing work in a steady flow. Continuity: keeping the plan rolling forward in the long term, with fixed reviews every two years that set realistic and achieveable targets.

The 10-Year Plan claimed these principles, but the reality has been a disappointment for contractors.Now it is effectively dead, there is a need and an opportunity to start again on a new policy that can put these principles into action.

Peter Heathershaw is chairman of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association