A year of delay and disappointment – a review of 2017

Ed Evans from the Civil Engineers Contractors Association in Wales looks back at 2017 and a year of delay and disappointment for those involved in the infrastructure sector in Wales but stresses that this must change if Wales is to benefit from the opportunities that new and improved infrastructure brings. But only if governments start to value the sector!

I’m pretty much a half a glass full person so it’s not like me to be leading with such a downbeat note but, for those of us involved in the infrastructure sector in Wales, 2017 was a much more disappointing year than we had anticipated. Yet again some of the major infrastructure projects we had been promised failed to materialise. Combined with continuing austerity measures in the public sector it’s been a challenge for many to find the “silver linings”.

I could easily have written much of this column twelve months ago because we were waiting for the same things then. Most noticeably the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon has not visibly moved forward at all in the last twelve months, despite a positive appraisal by the Hendry Review. The UK Government still appears to be locked in the same consideration process it has been for months. It seems the sticking points still involve strike price and, quite frankly, the ambition to do something on a large scale, to do it differently and to do it with a much broader view of the opportunities it would create.

There has also been disappointment connected with decisions by the UK Government in relation to transport infrastructure. No matter how it has been dressed up, the decision not to electrify the line between Cardiff and Swansea remains a bitter pill to swallow. It dents the confidence of the civil engineering industry in promises that are made and means that when good news does follow – such as station improvements at Cardiff Central Station and Swansea, or improving Cardiff to Severn Tunnel Junction Relief Lines – then please excuse the industry if we now greet such commitments with a raised eyebrow.

These unambitious substitutes can hardly be said to be ground breaking in a year in which Network Rail admitted to spending less than 2% of its budget on Wales. As several politicians have pointed out, at the close of 2017 Wales is paired with Moldova and Albania as the only remaining nations in Europe without a mile of electrified rail. Isn’t it about time we in Wales were treated a bit more fairly?

The same charge of lack of ambition might also be levelled at the Welsh Government by this point too. The National Infrastructure Commission we were promised has still not fully arrived. We went through the campaigning bit to get political consensus, we inputted to the Welsh Government’s consultation on the shape of a Commission in 2016 and the excellent report of the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee and we received the Government’s response back in January. It took between then and December for the terms of reference to be agreed and for adverts to be placed for a chair and board members. It is important that the Welsh Government makes up for lost time and keeps to a new momentum on this. This isn’t just important for the sector it’s essential to building a better Wales.

Similarly, the shelving of the plans for the Circuit of Wales after a tortuous decision making process can hardly be said to have filled the industry with confidence. Forgive us therefore if we still don’t wholly believe the M4 Relief Road will actually be built, since the project remains without consensus and is frequently the subject of political “noises off”.

In short, the infrastructure sector needs governments at both ends of the M4 to say what they mean and mean what they say. Our continuing faith in politics is being tested at the very time we should all be working ever more closely together. We know that every £1 spent on infrastructure projects directly boosts GDP by £1.30 with indirect effects up to £2.84 per pound spent. The multiplier effect is enormous. Indeed, the civil engineering industry represents about 7% of Wales’ GVA. Contrast that with the agriculture sector which contributes less than 1% or finance and insurance at less than 4%. We employ about 130,000 people in Wales. Contrast that with Tata Steel who employ about 8,500 people and Airbus at about 4,000 people. We are a big player and should be valued far better than we are. We keep getting told that we have great economic opportunities ahead of us in Wales. Words such as regeneration, catalyst, transformation are bandied about on a daily basis. City Deals, Growth Deals, City Regions; not a day goes by without mention of another major project, just over the horizon, which, if we get it right, will take us to Nirvana. There is a profound sense of exasperation, therefore, at being told big chances are just months away, just around the corner, or just at the end of the next consultation or review. If the Welsh Government is serious about a new “economic contract” between public and private sectors as part of their new Economic Action Plan then they need to start “walking the walk”. And the same can be said for the UK Government and their “Modern Industrial Strategy”. We’ve had enough of the good intentions. The time for action is long overdue!

Let’s hope that in 2018 at least a few more of those promises actually materialise!