GUEST ARTICLE: A vote of confidence or a lacklustre Budget? The inside view from the industry

  • 29 Nov 2023

This guest article outlines the thoughts of a handful of key industry figures to discover what they felt should have been included in the recent Autumn Statement from Chancellor Jeremy Hunt…

For Steve McSorley, Director at structural and civil engineering practice, Perega, a lack of clarity around infrastructure spending was a glaring omission.

“Following the cancellation of HS2 Phase 2, and a proposed redirection of existing funding to critical infrastructure in the North, it was disappointing the Chancellor did not present a more coherent plan around how the £36bn pot will be allocated. Several regions remain blighted by poor transport infrastructure which requires urgent upgrades and improvements, especially if the Government wants to realise its ambitions to level up the UK and achieve nationwide socioeconomic parity,” he says.

He was more encouraged by the Shadow Chancellor’s new infrastructure investment group, launched at the CBI’s annual conference last week.

He adds: “Bringing the big players together to improve delivery speed and get projects online faster is a great idea, but we need to see more meat on the bones as it matures. At present, it’s a very topline policy and runs the risk of becoming a talking shop, with plenty of words but very little action to follow.”

‘More work that can be done’

Approaching the statement from a business owner’s perspective, Ben Hancock, Managing Director of Oscar Acoustics, was keen to highlight how the Government needed to do more to support small businesses.

“SMEs have felt the brunt of the economic downturn in recent times, and news that markets are resurging will reassure many. Whilst the expected tax cuts will go some way to easing the financial pressure, there’s still more work that can be done. It would be good to see the government really drive home its support for small businesses, slashing income tax further and implementing support packages to tackle energy costs. This will make a big difference to SMEs and the wider economy,” he says.

New Build Budget Money

‘Desperately need more funding for skills’

Concentrating on the sector’s concerning talent drain, Adrian Attwood, Executive Director at heritage construction contractor DBR (London) Ltd, says: “We desperately need more funding for skills, particularly in specialist professions where years of under-investment put them at risk of being lost forever. The heritage construction sector is one such niche, where a rapidly shrinking talent pool puts increasing pressure on our abilities to protect and futureproof our national landmarks.

“Increasing investment would lead to myriad socioeconomic benefits: not only could it help provide more high-value career paths for young Brits, but it also preserves and futureproofs our historic built environment for future generations to enjoy. Sadly, once again, this type of long-term investment was missing from a pre-election statement which offered short-term tax cuts to appeal to swinging voters.”

However, for some, there were a couple of bright spots within the statement, which will no doubt provide potential growth opportunities in the new year.

‘Could unlock a significant pool of approved projects’

Allan Wilen, Economic Director at construction market intelligence provider Glenigan, concludes: “Measures to free up the planning system will be welcomed by the industry. Allowing councils to raise planning fees on major applications will hopefully enable authorities to better resource their planning departments and to deliver swift planning decisions. The government is also consulting on amending the National Planning Policy Framework to accelerate the rollout of EV charging points.

“Similarly, the civil engineering sector should be boosted by planned reform on the grid connection process. This is intended to cut overall connection delays from five years to six months and could unlock a significant pool of approved projects.”

What’s clear from the Autumn Statement is that it didn’t develop or progress many of the positive and far-reaching construction-related policies set out in the Spring Budget. Yes, whilst there were some positive indicators, it felt as though this Government was holding back in anticipation of a year of policy purdah in the run-up to a General Election.

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