We need to learn from the last half-decade of pain and have a long-term infrastructure pipeline to help prevent a return to boom and bust

Sarah Richardson 236

Five years ago this week, every newspaper front page was focused on the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Photographs of workers outside the bank’s Wall Street and Canary Wharf offices, belongings packed into cardboard boxes, became instant symbols of the fact that a global financial crisis had undeniably hit. For construction, the collapse confirmed that the “credit crunch”, which so far had hurt housebuilders badly, but no one else, had escalated into a reality that would engulf the whole industry.

So now, with tentative signs of recovery starting to emerge, it is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on what has been learnt during the last half-decade of pain. Some, like economic commentator Brian Green, argue simply “not enough”. And despite moves within many companies to adopt leaner ways of working - notably the take up of BIM - it’s hard not to agree with the uncomfortable assessment that, from a broader strategic perspective, there has, so far, been little change that is likely to protect the sector as a whole from suffering just as badly in any future recession.

However, Sir John Armitt’s infrastructure review, published last week, offers one final, major opportunity that would help prevent a repeat of recent history. Cogently and powerfully, he argues the case for a cross-party consensus on long-term infrastructure priorities, backed up by an independent body to oversee delivery.

Armitt’s argument, coming from someone with more major project delivery experience than probably anyone else in the country, is as compelling as it is clear. If the UK is to cope with the predicted 10 million increase in population over the next 22 years, it needs to plan delivery of a vastly improved energy and transport infrastructure now - and ensure that, unless substantial evidence emerges that alters priorities, those projects are delivered regardless of government changes. For construction and, in turn, the wider economy, this would also help mitigate some of the risk of a cyclical economy: the much feared return to boom and bust.

The Armitt review - a Labour-commissioned report - is, for political reasons as much as anything, far from certain of being translated into reality (a dispiriting irony for a review that is pushing for political consensus). But if it was, it could pave the way for an even broader environment of consistency in which sustainable retrofit, and hospital and school building priorities, could also be agreed off the back of universally agreed data collection programmes - in principle even if not in detail.

Construction would then genuinely have the long-term visibility it has been asking for for years - and the country would stand a chance of a built environment that meets the needs of its future population. The pressing question now is whether politicians on all sides have their eyes open enough to be willing to make it happen.

Sarah Richardson, editor

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