Saturday 29 June 2013

Investing In Britain's Future?

George "ten quid burger" Osborne has undertaken his spending review and he has decided to free up funding for capital projects over the next several years.

Silly Burger: Gideon Geoffrey George Osborne makes the finishing
touches to his road building review.
Image from London Evening Standard.
I am sure that children who have to sit in dilapidated classrooms will be happy with the £21bn to be spent on new school places needed because of demographic changes and clearing the maintenance backlog. But of course, this lot stopped rebuilding schools in 2010 and a rise in the birth rate has come as a massive surprise. Oh, and this won't be spent until the next parliament and a great deal will go to free schools.

I am also sure that shale gas investors will be happy for the unflinching support by the Government for their industry and when they have to do their tax returns on all of the profits, they can be safe in the knowledge that £200m is being saved from HMRC by doing away with paper and people to answer the phone.

Still, this is a highways and transport blog and so I must turn my attention towards the roads and the rails. Before I go on, I will be quoting from "Investing in Britain's Future" which is the formal plan to spend lots of money after they have cut lots of money. You can download the document here. I also want to link to Notes From A Transport Planner for a critical analysis of the spending review, whereas I am probably just going to rant. Oh, I have checked and the review document does not mention walking and cycling once, but it does mention museums, prisons and Hinkley Point C nuclear power station.

Isambard Kingdon Brunel - one the greatest Britons of all time,
probably the most famous civil engineer ever and a dynamo of
Victorian infrastructure construction. What would he make of the
people running the UK today?
So, George and his unholy sidekick (Danny Alexander of the Lib Dems - remember them?) are setting the UK up for the "biggest investment in our roads since the 1970s", the "largest investment in railways since Victorian times" and, er, that's about it for George'n'Dan for the forword, but we did invent steam trains and jet engines, so well done us.

Why the need to update our infrastructure? (other than dealing with the effects of running it into the ground 30 years) Well, this answer is in the foreword:

"We are in a global race, competing with countries like China and India – countries which understand the importance of modern infrastructure to a thriving economy and are investing billions in updating everything from their road networks, to intercity railway lines and power stations."

I bet India and China are quaking in their boots. The skint UK is going to spend lots of money it still doesn't have on stuff so they can complete on a global basis with two space-faring nations and they are going to pay for it by cutting funding from loads of other stuff to do it. Wow, I should have paid more attention in maths (I am a civil engineer and not a structural engineer of course)

HS2 - what was a *really* expensive train set has just got even more
expensive! Image from HS2 website.
Let's get the railways out of the way first as after all, that's what politicians have been trying to do for decades. There are some good things involving electrification of tracks and supporting rail freight, but the headline is that they are spending £42.6 billion (plus £7.5bn for rolling stock) on High Speed 2 (HS2). Wait a second, I looked at this in March and it "only" cost £34.5bn - someone really cannot add up here and it is not me. HS2 is a huge mistake and will be paid for by us for decades to come.

Roads. They really are an important daily piece of infrastructure and without them, society would not function. Food would not get to supermarkets, buses would not run, there would be nowhere to run utilities, the emergency services would not be able to get around. The news always carries stories of potholes in the winter and spring and so I welcome the announcement that £10bn will be going to maintenance which is split with £6bn to local authorities and £4bn to the Highways Agency (HA). 

This sum is pretty much the backlog reported by the Asphalt Industry Alliance, but I hope it will not just be spent on resurfacing roads, we have thousands of bridges in the UK and many which are weak, propped up, closed and restricted and they need substantial investment too. Look at the Hammersmith Flyover - £10m was spent on emergency works before the Olympics and £60m is to be spent soon on strengthening the bridge. Still, with all of the cuts to local councils over the last few years and the substantial loss of local authority engineers, I wonder if there is anyone left who knows how to spend it properly. Perhaps this is just the old take with one hand and give with the other con trick and highway budgets are always the first to be raided.

Bridges are not like wine, they do not get better with age. The older
they are, the more it costs to maintain them. If you don't, you end
up closing them.
The big headline, though, is that they will be ploughing a fortune into widening roads, building the huge list of HA schemes which are planned, dealing with hotspots (congestion that is, not casualties) and making the HA a publicly owned corporation (like Network Rail), so that private investment can be better sought (or the costs can be kept of the public accounts books - PFI anyone?). 

Astonishingly, the "source material" on which the plans for the strategic road and motorway network are based will not be published until "later in 2013", but 2 maps are provided showing congestion on these routes in 2010 and the projected congestion in 2040 (pages 15 and 16 of the document). It is stated that "traffic levels [are] estimated to be anywhere between 22 to 71 per cent higher by 2040" and so the Government clings desperately to the traffic growth forecasts which have been discredited, and so I can only guess at why they want to start road building again.

There is no mention of walking and cycling in this document at all and indeed outside of London, things are looking grim (Boris seems to be trying to protect cycling funding at the moment). The current funding pots against which local authorities can bid against for cash for walking, cycling and public transport is being shaken up with a large chunk being given to Local Enterprise Partnerships to use. LEPs are comprised of "local business leaders, local authority leaders and other partners". In essence, unelected bodies will be making decisions on what to fund and these decisions will inevitably mean funding going to support new commercial development, rather than infrastructure to support existing communities.

Still, with all of this "new" money sloshing around, there must surely be rejoicing in the halls of the professional institutions? Well, no. The Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation has a membership with many consultants and contractors who will benefit from work out of any large funding announcement and so would normally be rather supportive. In this case, CIHT was rather scathing (in a very polite and professional way of course). CIHT's Chief Executive, Sue Percy said this week;

Sue Percy.
Image from the Engineering Council.
"CIHT are pleased to see the importance and recognition being given to the role that is played by the transport sector in the UK’s economy. Whilst we initially welcome the high level announcements of investment in a number of transport schemes and projects, we will be reviewing these statements in more detail and assessing the finances behind them. It is unclear at this stage whether the figures announced represent any significant new investment or are recycling of existing finance.”

Although pleased with this recognition, the UK must develop an integrated long term transport infrastructure investment strategy. To achieve success the strategy must have cross-party agreement and look beyond the political cycle to a 20 year timeframe.”

In other words (well my words) 

"You know what politicians? We have heard it all so many times now that we simply don't trust what you say any more. You are all short so termist, it is no wonder we are in such a mess and unless you all get it together and provide leadership beyond the politics, we will remain a burnt out and knackered little island"

Percy went on to state:

Whilst we welcome the investment outlined for the highways sector, CIHT believe that this must form part of a long-term multi modal strategy. This and future investment must not only be in large-scale high profile schemes but also in smaller scale projects that can have a direct positive impact on local communities and economies.’

“Everyone relies on or uses transport daily, integrated transport is fundamental to the economic, social and environmental well being of the community. The whole transport network (including rail, buses, walking & cycling) is important to different users in different ways and must be effective to provide a safe and efficient level of service.”

Believe me, these are very strong words from the CIHT and would have been unheard of even 5 years ago. Do you know what? Sue Percy has summed it up for me and so I will leave it there this week!

Update 1/7/13
Oh, and what about the Office for Active Travel? Zip, that's what!


  1. Competing with China and India hmmm...

    I reckon they might realise that car travel is not the way forward, before our government does.

  2. It seems that other countries have already learnt from the mistakes we are so blind to.