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We must invest in our infrastructure today or pay the penalty further down the road

By Richard Kirk

Published 26/01/2016

Infrastructure is vital to jobs and competitiveness
Infrastructure is vital to jobs and competitiveness

Civil engineers have created the structures and systems that sustain our society. Each day we rely on what they deliver: bridges, roads, canals, docks, office buildings, hospitals, schools, airports, power stations, railways, flood defences and water-treatment facilities.

Infrastructure and the services it provides drive the economy forward by generating jobs, productivity and well-being, with every £1 of investment generating £2.84 in the wider economy.

However, to deliver long-term benefits to Northern Ireland, we need to think differently about how we fund and procure projects, which areas are most in need and how we attract and develop our best people to deliver them.

In addition, 94% of businesses say quality of infrastructure is a decisive factor in planning future investment. Infrastructure has a clear impact on business competitiveness and is central to growth. Though we welcome the devolution of corporation tax, it is not a silver bullet. Resilient, modern infrastructure and a skilled workforce are vital to attract investment and meet the demands of a growing economy.

I welcome the NI Executive's one year budget for 2016/17 and am encouraged to see that there is a five year projected capital expenditure for our key infrastructure projects. However, the same budget refers to a cash terms reduction in resource expenditure of 12% by 2020. Despite this fiscal climate, we must adequately maintain our assets - otherwise they will fail to serve and protect us.

ICE undertakes a needs assessment of our infrastructure each year, identifying those areas which are at risk. In our most recent review, we found the key areas to address are: North-South interconnector, publicly-owned energy from waste facility, roads maintenance and wastewater. If we do not resolve these issues, we risk making Northern Ireland a worse place to live and work.

The North-South interconnector will help lower energy costs and make our supply more secure. An energy from waste facility would not only negate the cost of exporting our waste and paying for some of the highest energy costs in Europe, but would also contribute to the circular economy through the creation of jobs. The deterioration of our roads network and a growing backlog of maintenance now exceeds £1bn. The NI Executive must prioritise maintenance of our network and not leave it to be funded by leftovers from the financial monitoring rounds.

While we have an abundance of water in Northern Ireland, making it suitable for consumption and disposing of sewage does not come without cost. Our water and sewerage services are currently funded from the taxes we pay, but without increased investment in the infrastructure which supports it, we are at risk of sewers over-flowing and pollution entering our rivers and beaches.

The EU recommends water charging to sustainably manage water consumption, and currently Northern Ireland is the only region in the EU to not implement this strategy. We would encourage the Executive to consider the benefits of releasing about £280m of the block grant by introducing domestic water charging. With exceptions in place for those unable to pay, ringfencing this user charge will better protect our people and environment and provide high quality water and sewerage services.

If we do not introduce alternative funding sources, Government risks having to pay more in future for problems we do not resolve today. For example, the poor water quality of Belfast Lough and other water bodies will incur EU infraction charges if we do not invest in initiatives like the Living with Water Programme.

With the 2016 elections fast approaching, we encourage our leaders to focus on economic and social outcomes which are underpinned by investment in economic infrastructure.

Richard Kirk is regional director of the Institution of Civil Engineers. The ICE launches its manifesto at Parliament Buildings tomorrow

We must invest in our infrastructure today or pay the penalty further down the road

Belfast Telegraph

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