Outdated, outmoded and old fashioned

Posted on 13 Oct 2014 by Callum Bentley

Is the UK a nation of "ditherers" when it comes to major infrastructure projects? Terry Scuoler has a few thoughts on the matter.

Terry Scuoler, Chief Executive of EEF
Terry Scuoler, Chief Executive of EEF

Plans for a so-called ‘Boris Island’ with a new airport in the Thames estuary appear to have been ruled out.

The continued delay, however, over the final decision where the much needed new airport capacity will actually be located is a sad but all too typical example of the malaise from which we suffer in the UK.

Whether it’s airports, high speed rail projects, or exploring for shale gas we seem to be in a state of constant flux, unable to make decisions quickly and adhere to them.

The basic infrastructure that underpins our proud trading nation is out of date and no longer fit for purpose. And it will take a high-powered authority filled to the brim with ambitious young Brunels to fix it.

Fundamental questions need to be asked about what we need to build or develop over the next 20 to 30 years. Have we got the right plans for our road, air, and rail networks such that we can compete and thrive in the global market place in the decades to come? I am afraid that the honest answer at the moment is no.

There has to be a better way. We need nothing less than a Marshall Plan to rescue the UK’s ageing infrastructure, ushering in a new age of pioneering invention, and engineering excellence.

As a first step we have to go beyond current political party politics by creating a new and wholly independent UK Infrastructure Authority.

Such a group, with a parent board accountable to parliament, should have the clout and the independence needed to ensure grand plans are identified and delivered. It should be set up as a Non-Ministerial Government Department maintaining its impartiality while also having the flexibility to work across government.

An independent authority should be tasked to complete a national assessment which would look ahead at the country’s infrastructure needs over a 10 or 20 year horizon and beyond at both national and regional levels. It would identify critical projects and outline when political decisions need to be made.

Residents, businesses, political parties and others would be consulted on long term projects and invited to submit their own ideas. Just as with the current Airports Commission, the final decision would be taken by the government of the day.

In Britain we are rightly proud of our industrial heritage. We have an excellent track record of inventing things and coming up with new and exciting innovations.  But when it comes to putting in place the essential foundations on which a successful trading nation is dependent – the roads, ports, energy, digital and other infrastructure essentials that keep Britain moving and help make us more competitive – we lag behind.

There is much to be gained if we grasp this particular nettle. UK companies should be at the front of the queue to bid for and complete these projects. And with greater certainty they will be encouraged to invest more in the skills and industrial capability required to deliver them.

It will require a steely political determination of Churchillian proportions to make this happen. For the sake of the economy and our long term growth as a nation however, we need to stop dithering and get on with the job.