Autumn Statement: Infrastructure sector left underwhelmed

Dominic Browne

Despite its emphasis on infrastructure, engineering and technology, the chancellor's Autumn Statement left the civil engineering sector underwhelmed.

Jeremy Hunt placed great emphasis on increasing productivity through the acceleration of infrastructure delivery, with planning and energy reforms, to remove local backlogs and speed up connections to the grid.

He also gave a further boost to devolution, with new deals giving local authorities more discretionary spending through funding pots covering areas such as housing and transport.

However ADEPT president, Anthony Payne said the overall statement was 'disappointing for public services'.

'While we welcome the announcement of the Round 3 Levelling Up funding announced on Monday and increased support for housing and devolution, we need to understand the details behind other elements, such as the nutrient mitigation scheme and changes to planning.

'The public and the most vulnerable in our communities can see that many of the services they rely on just aren’t working. All the innovation and new practices we introduce are no longer enough to bridge the gap between resource and delivery.

He concluded: 'We work with government to ensure national priorities are delivered locally and we will continue to deliver for the communities we serve, but there is no hiding the fact we are under intense pressure and the continuing impact on services will be felt by everyone.'

With a £2bn investment in the zero emission vehicles manufacturing sector and the promise of planning reforms to aid the roll-out of electric vehicle chargepoints, the EV market was one of the biggest winners from the Autumn Statement.

Edmund King, AA president gave a somewhat muted response all the same. He welcomed the plans before saying he would 'still like to see incentives for drivers to help them to take part in the zero emission transition'.

'Hopefully, these incentives, a further freeze in fuel duty, and a cut in Insurance Premium Tax will be outlined in the Spring Budget,' he added.

The Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) hit a more upbeat note, highlighting some of its specific lobbying points that had been acted on, including:

  • Making 'full expensing' - which offers first-year tax relief to companies on plant and machinery investments - permanent, with the intention to consult on expanding the scope of full expensing to include assets for leasing.
  • Creating a Star Chamber to speed up infrastructure delivery.

CECA director of operations, Marie-Claude Hemming said: 'After a few months of doom and gloom news in the infrastructure sector, today’s announcements are pleasantly surprising and we recognise that our members’ concerns have been taken on board.

'Alongside the publication of the Autumn Statement document, is a policy paper focusing on speeding up infrastructure delivery, a key component is the creation of a Star Chamber.

'In our recent policy document, CECA called for construction to be put at the heart of policy making, with the establishment of a Cabinet Committee for Infrastructure, and we welcome that this suggestion has been adopted by Government.'

However, she added there was 'substantial concern over the merger of R&D expenditure and SME schemes'.

'The associated guidance suggests that contractors may still be able to claim tax credits for some R&D, but we need to see more detail as industry has been worried that proposed changes might make this hard in reality, potentially reversing recent strong growth in innovation in the sector.'

Building Cost Information Service chief economist, Dr David Crosthwaite complained that the 'already delayed National Infrastructure and Construction Pipeline is still nowhere to be seen, with the government saying it will publish a National Infrastructure Strategy next year'.

He added that it was 'hugely disappointing that the government hasn’t addressed the built environment and other sectors’ significant contribution to carbon emissions; ambitions to reach net zero continue to be hampered by a lack of mandate for reporting from government level'.

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