Even without the shock effect of the recent floods, it is clear that much of the UK’s building and infrastructure provision is already in crisis
When David Cameron declared this week that “money was no object” in the relief effort to deal with flooding devastation across large parts of the South of England, the public reaction was understandably mixed. Few would argue against urgent action to relieve stricken communities left without basic amenities, and the thousands of households evacuated or at risk of evacuation. But at the same time, after years of austerity that have seen cuts to central government capital spending on many of the UK’s vital services – including flood defences – rhetoric around money being irrelevant is, for many, a little hard to stomach.
Cameron’s reaction to the flooding crisis echoes the sentiment of Sir John Armitt’s assertion, when interviewed by Building last month, that blackouts would be needed to spur the necessary investment in upgrading the UK’s outdated energy infrastructure. The events this week have proven that – given a sharp shock – the government is capable of both finding funds and spending them quickly.
But the reality is that, even without this shock effect, much of the UK’s building and infrastructure provision is already in crisis.
As we explore on pages 34-37, the 240,000 homes that politicians believe are needed to meet demand in England stand very little chance of being built because of the limited scale of affordable housing programmes, currently struggling to hit even the 55,000 a year envisaged by the government.
In education, the £21bn that chancellor George Osborne has pledged to spend on schools by 2021, should the Conservatives win the next election, will in reality not even be enough to address the current maintenance backlog, which was estimated at £22bn in 2011 - let alone create the 275,000 extra primary school places forecast to be needed by the time Osborne’s promise comes to completion.
There is also an alarming growing backlog of maintenance work in the healthcare sector, currently standing at around £4.5bn.
The reality of the gap between current provision, future spending promises and demonstrable need in all of these areas highlights the case for saying that these ongoing realities are every bit as pressing as the current flooding crisis – even though they will not attract the same dramatic headlines.
And, on top of that, if they are not addressed, in a sustained and planned way, then in the not too distant future they too will fall into the category of short-term crisis. The Committee on Climate Change warned last month that “we can expect an extra £3bn in avoidable flood damages in future years because spending in this period is half a billion pounds behind the identified need”. And as with any knee jerk crisis reaction, the solutions that will now be put in place are highly unlikely to be the most cost effective ones over the longer term.
The clear need for investment across so many sectors in the UK, set against the inevitable budgetary pressures of an economy recovering from recession, only adds weight to Armitt’s call for a longer-term approach to capital spending planning - not only in infrastructure, which was the focus of his review, but also in other priority areas of the built environment.
As Building’s Agenda 15 campaign is arguing, the time to set these long-term plans is now, as parties put together their manifestos for the next election. So to have your say on where the next government should focus its capital spending, before another sector gets caught in the eye of the storm, add your views via building.co.uk/agenda15.
Sarah Richardson, editor