Standing behind a lectern emblazoned with the words ‘Build, Build, Build’, the Prime Minister announced an ambitious plan to use investment in infrastructure as part of his ‘New Deal’ to avoid - or significantly soften - a looming recession.
Over the coming weeks, there will doubtless be an ongoing debate over whether the additional £5bn investment in infrastructure is itself enough to provide the desired economic boost. And though it might be too early to quantify the effects of the investment, it does seem that the Prime Minister is at least aware of the need for ‘sophisticated spending’, as the Institution of Civil Engineers put it. It is as much a question, in short, of ‘where’ and ‘what’ is spent as it is ‘how much’.
For one, the efforts to reform the procurement process is vital if the strategy is indeed to be ‘Project Speed’. After all, the process at present requires construction firms to wait years before the first shovels even break ground. Time saved at this planning stage of project lifecycles could, in effect, be reinvested in expediting construction itself.
What’s more, there is a broader recognition that projects need not be eye-catching to be worthy. The £100m for 29 road network projects, including bridge repairs in Sandwell and improving the A15 in the Humber region, will not only create jobs, but provide for much needed work in tandem with the economic boost. They can also be implemented quickly. It is worth remembering that for all the reduction in travel on account of Covid-19, roads are no less vital to the economy: the 1 billion tonnes of freight that travels along England’s motorways and trunk roads each year is testament to the continued arterial importance of transport links to the flow of commerce.
At its core, infrastructure is a system; it provides the vital linkages that pull the country together as one to allow the ‘economic reverberations’ the Prime Minister describes. The construction sector has acted in precisely this spirit throughout the crisis, displaying an unprecedented degree of collaboration, typified by the release of the first-ever Standard Operating Procedures by the Construction Leadership Council. The Nightingale Hospitals stand across the country as testament to the power of a willingness to pull together and work as one.
And this is truly the lesson of the crisis. For all the debate over the amount of investment required, it is clear that the question of whether to spend on infrastructure has been decidedly settled. As the Government’s project gets underway, firms will once again be required to collaborate. And if we can do it when we need to, we can surely do it when we want to.