While warm words on the importance of infrastructure are great to hear, what the industry really needs now from the chancellor and his government is delivery, says Infrastructure Intelligence editor, Andy Walker.
Once again, in a set-piece political speech in parliament, we have heard a leading politician, in this case the chancellor of the exchequer, laud the importance of infrastructure to the UK economy and highlight the government’s commitment to “building back better”. So far so good. But talk is cheap and as we know it is far easier to talk about doing something than to actually do that thing.
Rishi Sunak’s budget speech was light on specific details in a number of key areas for the construction and infrastructure sector and it’s no wonder that his budget has been given a decidedly mixed and in some areas lukewarm response from our industry.
Of course, we shouldn’t be churlish and it’s obviously great to hear the chancellor highlighting the key importance of our industry to the UK. “Infrastructure connects our country, drives productivity and levels up” and “This budget delivers an infrastructure revolution” are absolutely the phrases that the sector needs to hear from the person in charge of the nation’s purse strings. However, they are just phrases and on their own they do not build a single house, safely reclad a tower block, construct a road or railway or tackle some of the deep-seated environmental issues that we need to overcome if we are to meet our net zero targets.
Rishi Sunak’s budget confirmed a number of spending pledges around housing, local transport and various levelling up initiatives but much of what was highlighted in his speech had already been trailed in advance or announced some time ago. While the spending pledges on infrastructure are to be welcomed, as the chancellor himself admitted, “what matters is not what is spent, but what is delivered”. And there lies the rub. Delivery not words (Project Speed, anyone?) are what is required for our industry and as the voice of construction and infrastructure, here at Infrastructure Intelligence we won’t shy away from highlighting the urgent need to see real tangible projects and schemes emerging from our politicians’ promises.
Industry leaders have rightly bemoaned the lack of any concrete announcements on big-ticket infrastructure projects in this budget. Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Railway Industry Association said that the budget was a “missed opportunity to unleash the potential of the railways in helping the country to build back better”. Caplan also highlighted the lack of any statement from the chancellor on whether long-term day-to-day funding of the railway network will be maintained at least at current levels in the years ahead. “We still don’t know what is in the Integrated Rail Plan for the Midlands and the north, we still have uncertainty over major projects, such as HS2 eastern leg, Northern Powerhouse Rail and Midlands Rail Hub,” he said. And he’s right, there was nothing said about those landmark projects, so vital to levelling up.
Sir John Armitt, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, also wasn’t happy about the lack of any specifics from the chancellor on UK rail. “Ongoing uncertainty hanging over major rail schemes in the north and midlands is not in anyone’s best interest, not least because of the timescales involved in taking such large projects from aspiration to delivery,” he said.
“We gave our own independent assessment of options to government ten months ago. The government’s plan should be published without further delay to help unlock economic growth across the north and break the cycle of committing to schemes only to later reopen or rescope them,” said Armitt.
And, while it was good to hear the chancellor bullishly mention the first major investment made by the new National Infrastructure Bank, that is only one investment made on one project in the four months since the bank was officially launched. Clearly, the chancellor needs to do better in this area, like so many others.
Effectively, the key decisions about Northern Powerhouse Rail and the eastern leg of HS2 have been kicked down the road for the time being, despite there being strong speculation that the chancellor would include an announcement in his budget. All that Rishi Sunak was able to offer on these key much-needed infrastructure projects was to say that the Integrated Rail Plan, which will set out the government’s plans for key rail investments, will come “soon”. Again, this is not good enough and our industry needs and deserves much more.
Sunak appears to ‘get’ the link between infrastructure, investment, increasing economic prosperity and levelling up. “If the government wants growth, it must tackle the country’s uneven economic geography,” he proclaimed during his budget speech. But tackling the country’s uneven economic geography won’t be resolved by saying “levelling up” and “building back better”. This can only be done by investing in and delivering the infrastructure that the nation so badly needs. Delivery on the ground. Real projects that transform communities and people’s lives that deliver lasting social value across the country.
So, the challenge to the chancellor is this. Saying “build, build, build” is fine, but now we need action and real projects on the ground. It’s time to deliver, deliver, deliver, Mr Sunak.