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Planning for the unthinkable

Well, it’s not much of a surprise I guess, but it appears that the recession-busting fiscal stimulus provided by massive public spend on construction and engineering projects is a little slow off the blocks.

The announcement of billions of pounds of government cash to be spent on roads, public buildings and the like looks like taking a bit more than a couple of weeks to sort out – we hear from New Civil Engineer for example that the £100m to be spent on improved access to the port of Immingham won’t start to be spent until 2013.

With luck by that time the recession will be a distant memory, and we’ll have successfully delivered the London Olympics. Maybe England will be World Champions too, having beaten Germany 6:1 in the final in South Africa. Maybe Gordon Brown will still be Prime Minister. (Which one of these is least likely, do you think?)

Anyway, one thing this proves is that public sector spend cannot be relied upon to get going quickly. There are good reasons of course – the appropriate planning process that stops people laying down tarmac willy-nilly through the back gardens of north east Lincolnshire shouldn’t be omitted altogether, nor should a decent level of inspection of tenders to prove value for money. But even so – 2013?

Sadly, central government and local authorities are just not used to spending quickly, if you’re used to taking 39 weeks over a consultation process, knocking it out in 13 is a big ask.

In fact, there’s a decent argument for some of the fiscal stimulus being spent in either outsourcing the management of the public consultation and planning approvals process, or in bulking up the resources of the undoubtedly under-pressure local planning teams. Both these measures would help other, privately funded, schemes get to ‘go’, as well as the publicly funded ones – we might all get a win.

Anyway, leaving all this political strategy aside, the real business message in this story is that you need to think ahead, and to think the unthinkable. If, a couple of years ago, someone had said “look, what if all of this grinds to a halt. We’re going to need to spend some big chunks of public money quickly. I know, let’s get some schemes oven-ready so we’re covered if the economy bellies up”, then we might have been able to turn the key on an existing plan, and get going quicker.

Businesses should behave similarly – think the unthinkable. If your business is built around airport work – imagine a world where aviation is hit so hard with aviation taxes your work dries up – what would you do? If you’re in water, what happens if, suddenly, there’s a very, very big drought? What would a year-long series of crippling tube strikes do to the City of London commercial property market? Will the London Olympics be the catalyst for a sustained boom? What happens if Gordon stays PM?

Asking such questions will help you prepare plans for all sorts of eventualities – none of which are all that likely to happen. But having the plans will prepare you for more likely scenarios, and allow a speedy  response to any market change that does occur. And as Darwin would have said, those who can adapt the fastest may survive.

In the meantime, we’d better start lobbying the government to get planning the fiscal stimulus package for the next recession now. Otherwise, we’ll get caught out again.

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