What a bewildering last few months it has been for the UK – and indeed, everyone working with transport planning and infrastructure design consultants like our own with a view to the optimisation of the country’s transport infrastructure.
The headline change in recent days, of course, has been former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s rise to the top job in UK politics, succeeding Liz Truss, who resigned amid the market turmoil and economic uncertainty following her government’s controversial “mini-budget”.
Whatever one makes of these latest developments or it being Mr Sunak specifically who triumphed in the truncated Conservative Party leadership contest – which also, by default, determined the identity of the next Prime Minister – it is fair to say that such instability does not lend itself to putting in place long-term plans for transport infrastructure, although this is partly what enables the economic growth that the new Prime Minister need to address the housing crisis.
It is unsurprising, then, that the Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation (CIHT) has been among the organisations and individual observers calling for a return to “certainty” following Mr Sunak’s appointment, as will be crucial for the UK highways and transportation sector and the entire development industry as a whole.
A swift change from “growth, growth, growth” to “balancing the books”
In a news release noting Mr Sunak’s confirmation at 10 Downing Street, the charity and membership body said that the previous eight weeks had been “quite a turbulent time for the UK Government in a time where the country – and the sector – needs certainty. This has been made increasingly difficult with endless ministerial changes and different policy priorities.”
The organisation noted that it was only as recently as 23rd September that Ms Truss – and the first of her two Chancellors in her 50-day spell as Prime Minister, Kwasi Kwarteng – had presented their “mini-budget”, officially known as The Growth Plan 2022.
That plan contained a number of proposed measures and initiatives with a big emphasis on attempting to grow the UK economy – or as the CIHT described it, “growth, growth, growth”. The organisation said the Growth Plan “had a real focus on the speeding up of road infrastructure projects, ones that will have been welcomed by many CIHT members and partners working on these schemes.”
But in fast-moving events since then, Mr Kwarteng was sacked as Chancellor, and replaced by Jeremy Hunt, who turned the focus back to “balancing the books” instead of a fixation on growth. Mr Hunt has remained in place as Chancellor in Mr Sunak’s government.
Hopes for greater predictability after unwanted turbulence
Although the Growth Plan document had stated – on page 35 – that the presence of certain infrastructure projects on its list “does not guarantee… funding, planning consent or approval for other regulatory or permitting processes”, such uncertainty would now seem all the greater following Mr Hunt’s ditching of much of the Growth Plan itself.
While acknowledging a prevailing economic climate that it said “has provided a rude awakening for the highways and transport sector”, the CIHT drew attention to its previous calls for a “National Transport Strategy”, which it argued “should include the strategic and local highway networks, rail, aviation and ports, and set out how those networks integrate with one another, and for a new focus on the Local Highway Network.”
CIHT stated in the publication Improving Local Highways that there was a need for inflation-linked total expenditure (TOTEX) funding for the UK local highways network, and reasoned after Mr Sunak’s appointment that “now more than ever, this feels incredibly important that we not only see this for the local highway network, but across our sector to allow a degree of certainty in uncertain times.”
The organisation added: “This will be pivotal If we are to heed the words of the Climate Change Committee’s latest report and make sure that the transport sector is no longer known as the largest emitter.
“Therefore, CIHT will look forward to seeing how the new PM and Chancellor make sure that certainty is brought to the highways and transport sector and will be a priority area for investment in the full autumn statement.”
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If there is at least one dependable source of certainty during these less-than-certain times, it might well be our own expertise as transport planning consultants.
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