Sunday night TV. It doesn’t make for the best watching in the world does it. The schedules get filled up with the stuff channels can’t show at prime time or during the day, which usually means there’s nothing worth watching. However, a programme called Built In Britain which was shown on BBC 2 Sunday night at 8pm, did grab my attention.
The show followed BBC reporter Evan Davis around the country, looking at the engineering challenges our country faces. We got to see some amazing machinery built in Germany which is currently digging new underground tunnels under London, and some fantastic bridge building taking place in Scotland. But the programme also raised what I thought was a valid point. The new tunnels being dug and the new bridges being built are providing thousands of new jobs in the local economies. So isn’t there a case for a wider scale new infrastructure plan?
Think about the UK before London became the financial capital of the world. Our main industries were mining, construction and engineering. Britain has always been at it’s strongest when it has been building. As it stands, the rate at which Britain is building is immensely slow. I can’t remember when the ONS last published a good set of monthly figures on construction. But I would like to use where I live as an example.
Wakefield has seen massive regeneration over the last few years. We have had a brand new, state of the art £250m hospital built. Took a while but the feedback on the new place has been brilliant. Many happy patients and many happy workers involved in building it. The centre of the city has also gone under massive change. By my very rough calculations there has been a £200-£250m project rolling out across the centre of our city. We have a new college building. We have new and quite expansive multi-purpose buildings which I shall come on to in a minute. We have a new and very impressive council building. We have a more open plan pedestrianized area between the new college building and what we call Merchant Gate – that new multi-purpose project. The main train station is being revamped and enlarged. Our other (very crappy) train station is being totally changed. We have a new and dedicated justice building. We also have a one way system now which many don’t agree with and I’m one of them…but nothing we can do about that! Not to mention an award winning new art gallery, The Hepworth, as well some very fancy apartments in a converted mill one side of the canal and a new development the other side.
One of the most prominent projects has been the construction of Merchant Gate. It is a mixed-use block of efficient and modern building space which is being split up between office space, apartments and restaurants/shops and this is the most important factor. We can’t just build for building’s sake. If we construct something we need to make sure it will be used and used to it’s potential. There’s no point building 10,000 new apartments in Wakefield because they’re never going to be filled. But if we use that space in equal measure for both the general population and business, the city can attract companies and the employment they bring, as well provide useful living space for the expanding population. The benefits for the city are going to be massive. But the immediate benefits have been the jobs that have been created because of all the new work that has taken place.
The argument for Get Britain Building is a good one. But it has to be sustainable and it has to be done correctly, but also quickly. The Government is broke, so we can’t rely on George Osbourne and his sherry swigging cronies to pump hundreds of billions of pounds into new projects. We are going to have to rely on a lot of private sector money. But there is no reason why the Government can’t help. They can help encourage private businesses within this country to spend some of their cash on new infrastructure and buildings here. We have some of the best financial environments compared to the rest of Europe, so why not? The construction sector has lost tens of thousands of jobs, if not more, over the past few years. Getting a privately financed, Government backed infrastructure/construction plan in place will help recover those jobs and give our economy another string to our bow, other than the financial one in London.
It wouldn’t just be the construction sector that would get a direct boost. Think of all the other industries associated with construction, including our own! Fenestration, insulative industries, trades like plastering, plumbing and sparkies would all benefit from the trickle down effect of a construction boost.
Here is my last, and to some, my most important point. If any construction boost is to come, it has to happen up North. And by that I mean properly up North. Birmingham isn’t far North enough. I’m talking of places like Yorkshire and Humber, Lancashire, Teeside, the North-West and so on. The cities are there! Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle etc. These are regional hubs at best. But the tools and the people are there to turn these regional hubs into really influential places of sustainable excellence. The south of the country has had the most money and effort placed in it for the last few decades while the North has been left to struggle on, with London being the main driver of our whole economy. The North will bring our economy a grit and determination to do well like only we can!