David Cameron was in good form earlier this week. Monday saw him offer a tub-thumping speech on the UK infrastructure sector, calling for rapid movement forward on the renewal of the country’s power, rail and communications networks.
It was a rallying call to re-inject the vigour that the Victorians once had for infrastructure projects, blasting away the blockages of vested interest and bloated bureaucracy. Only through such action, he said, would UK plc plot a course to recovery.
For those in the audience from industry, it was heartening to hear the Prime Minister give such categorical support for infrastructure.
But the nation’s press were also on hand, pre-briefed that the speech would flesh out details of plans to consider future funding for the strategic roads network. Or “Toll road UK: Tory road sell-off will hit drivers in the pocket”, as The Mirror delicately put it.
Behind the inflammatory headlines, the reality was the launch of a joint Department for Transport and Treasury feasibility study to look at ownership and financing models for the strategic roads network.
The coalition has bitten a bullet that successive previous governments have dodged, namely how to fund the investment that is required to bring the UK’s roads up to the standard of our global competitors.
Implicit in this is the suggestion of a closer link between how much people use the road, and how much they pay for doing so.
So what does this mean for the companies maintaining and improving the network? We don’t expect that it will have an immediate impact on current and programmed works. The feasibility study will take time to complete, with a target to report back in the autumn.
If the report does recommend fundamental change, this would probably require further time for parliamentary scrutiny and implementation.
But that does not mean that we should sit back and wait for the government to reach its conclusions. Given the promise of significant reform to the structure of the sector, it is essential that industry collaborates to ensure any future model is robust and sustainable.
If ownership of the network is transferred out of the public sector, this should not lead us backwards down a path towards adversarial lowest price tendering.
Any new model must take the best elements of current practice and build upon them, taking advantage of long-term certainty to plan more efficient programmes of investment that secure wins for the taxpayer, the travelling public, investors and industry alike.
It is also essential that any transition is not accompanied by a hiatus in workloads, as has been seen with restructuring and privatisation elsewhere in the sector.
We will be working with others in industry and Whitehall to help plot the course for the future for the strategic roads network, ensuring that it is fit for purpose in the years to come.
Alasdair Reisner is director of external affairs at the Civil Engineering Contractors Association