Post-Brexit Britain needs to solve its infrastructure problems – before it's too late

The World Economic Forum ranks Britain 24th in the world for the quality of our infrastructure: our roads and railways are overcrowded, our water supply is falling to critical levels in some areas and our utilities are often far more expensive than our European neighbours

John Armitt
Friday 12 August 2016 13:44 BST
Comments
Delays had left flight crew out of positions, leading to widespread delays and cancellations
Delays had left flight crew out of positions, leading to widespread delays and cancellations (PA)

Support truly
independent journalism

Our mission is to deliver unbiased, fact-based reporting that holds power to account and exposes the truth.

Whether $5 or $50, every contribution counts.

Support us to deliver journalism without an agenda.

Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

Hinkley, Heathrow and HS2: the three H’s of British infrastructure have dominated politics for years. The approach of the new Government to each will be crucial to our country’s prosperity.

On HS2, new Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has been admirably clear – the project is essential and it will go ahead. On Hinkley and Heathrow – or, more accurately, on whether we proceed with plans to build a series of new nuclear power stations, and what we do to expand airport capacity – we await a promise of clear choices and firm action in the autumn.

There is no shame in a new administration taking time to consider its options. It is the right thing to do. But decisions must be taken. To govern, after all, is to decide.

The UK's reputation as a country which can plan and deliver major infrastructure has grown over recent years, on the back of Crossrail – the largest construction project in Europe – the Thames Tideway, and other major schemes. But recent delays over decisions on airports and nuclear power risk damaging that reputation.

Heathrow third runway decision needed ‘as soon as possible’ after Brexit says Simon Calder

The UK is undergoing a time of enormous upheaval. The implications of the EU referendum will not be fully understood for years, if not decades.

In the short-term, the vote to leave is a significant shock to the economy which has transformed the political landscaped. The omens for the longer term are less clear. In uncertain times, a clear and stable strategy is important, particularly in areas such as infrastructure where planning and delivering major projects can take years.

We need only look back at the 2008 credit crunch to see the potential consequences of this sort of shock: projects stalled, hiring frozen, and training cancelled. We are still recovering from those setbacks. As of January this year, Britain’s construction workforce was still 13 per cent smaller than it was at the pre-recession peak in 2008. We cannot afford to make the same mistake again.

There is much to be proud of in British infrastructure – but so much still to do. The World Economic Forum ranks Britain 24th in the world for the quality of our infrastructure: our roads and railways are over-crowded, our water supply is falling to critical levels in some areas, our flood defences require improvement, and our utilities are often far more expensive than our European neighbours.

The UK needs to improve its infrastructure to help secure the jobs and growth, and that has never been truer than today. The context may have changed, but the challenge has not.

If all areas of the UK are to prosper outside the EU we need to continue to rebalance our economy. Improved transport links alone will not be sufficient for growth in the north, but they will form an essential part of any plan to boost productivity and employment across the region. Transport for the North needs to produce a practical plan to move things forward this autumn.

In a post-referendum world, links to Europe and beyond are also vital. Improving our airport capacity crisis is vital, but we need to do more. As well as taking a decision on runway location, Government and industry must modernise London’s airspace to minimise the impact on people living beneath flight paths.

Third, the UK must prepare an energy strategy. A decision on Hinkley is only the start. There are enormous looming questions about how we replace the two thirds of our energy existing supply, set to be decommissioned in the next 15 years. If we improve energy infrastructure it could save consumers between £2bn and £8bn a year from their bills by 2030. And if we are to meet our carbon targets we are going to need to look seriously at decarbonising our vehicles and our heating systems.

None of these issues is solved by leaving the EU. The world is watching us – it is no time to return to the bad old days of indecision and inaction. Firm decisions are needed in the autumn, with no further delay, and then we must press ahead with resolve.

A well-developed infrastructure strategy can be the backbone of post-Brexit Britain. From the Victorians to London 2012, Britain has led the world in this arena. We must demonstrate that our decision on 23rd June does not mean that we are turning our back on this role, but rather the very opposite.

Sir John Armitt CBE is a Commissioner for the National Infrastructure Commission

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in