As Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Infrastructure, Andrew Jones MP, writes regular blogs for the Institution of Civil Engineers.
There is always a sense of anticipation across Westminster before one of the great set pieces. This was no exception. The House was heaving. This Autumn Statement was going to set the tone and direction for the rest of this parliament. No pressure then!
In advance there had been so much speculation and so many stories in the media. Lots of people had commented they had an insight on content. Having done a budget as a Treasury minister, there is an element of it was ever thus, but it seemed more than usual.
Pay no attention to noise, just focus on the substance – wise advice I was given when I started. This was the moment to recognise that after a pandemic and with a current war, the public finances have been stretched and need repair. The public know this too.
I thought we had a complex and cleverly crafted statement. Clever because it had several different audiences, who were looking for or needing different things. Amongst those were, of course, the financial markets.
The risk was that in repairing the short term, the long term would be compromised. For me that meant the challenges of improving productivity and growth. I have commented on this before, so I will not go over old ground, but I was looking to see capital spending protected.
We did get that. I knew the industry had been worried there may be programme cuts, so from the perspective of the APPGI, this was a positive statement. £600 billion of capital spending was protected and I asked the Chancellor whether he would be supporting the funding with programmes on skills and apprenticeships. The reason for the question was simply a concern that in the UK we have not been training enough people with the skills we need to deliver our plans.
I do not think I am alone in this concern, but it is the direct consequence of so many capital projects going forward at once. It also reflects a long term failure of governments of all colours to place skills in the workforce at the centre of policy.
As a group, the APPGI has not focussed on skills directly, rather we have highlighted how infrastructure investment is central to meeting long term economic, social and especially environmental goals. This is something to think about for the year ahead.
After all the recent upheavals, creating economic conditions that encourage business and consumer confidence was critical. Reducing the commercial risk on decisions means more investment. The way the markets and politics have reacted to the Autumn Statement shows how we now have more stability and this will lead to increased confidence. For the long term decisions that infrastructure projects invariably are, this is also positive for the sector.
The challenges facing us, and all other countries, are profound. Geopolitics is impacting business in a way it has not for years. There is no sign of that going away any time soon. Ensuring we are placed to deal with the issues requires capital investment alongside other measures, so my summary on the Autumn Statement is positive.