Time to up the ante on roads and airports

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EEF's first transport survey shows that the UK's stretched infrastructure risks undermining efforts to rebalance the economy and hit the government's target to double exports to £1tn a year by 2020. We urgently need to take the politics out of infrastructure, reassess our investment priorities and be bolder on the big issues like airport capacity and funding our road network.

Never has investment in infrastructure been more important. With the UK stagnating and global competition intensifying, investing in the nation's transport network will give the economy a shot in the arm today and help lay the foundations for our competitiveness tomorrow. Quality infrastructure lowers the cost of doing business, helps attract inward investment and provides access to international markets.

The road network is the backbone of the economy, but it has been neglected. Four-fifths of manufacturers identify it as business-critical. From moving goods and raw materials to accessing labour and running a lean production model, roads underpin their ability to do business.

But high levels of congestion on key arteries and the poor maintenance of many local roads are adversely impacting operations. More than half of firms report significantly increased operating costs and nearly a third a loss of productivity as a result.

Aviation helps connect the UK to the global marketplace. This makes it crucial to an export-intensive sector with a significant proportion of foreign ownership like manufacturing. So we must invest in airport capacity where it is needed to ensure that the UK can continue to compete for overseas business and attract inward investment.

Three-quarters of export-intensive manufacturers identify aviation infrastructure as important to identifying new business opportunities. Half of foreign-owned firms say it is a key factor in deciding where to invest.

Getting transport policy behind efforts to grow the economy means tackling some long-standing issues. Chief amongst them are political prevarication, skewed investment priorities and a lack of ambition.

Step one is avoiding the endless political prevarication and policy reversals that dog major infrastructure issues. Policy must be placed on a more strategic footing by establishing an independent infrastructure commission. An independent and apolitical body tasked with identifying the nation's long-term needs would help establish, forge and sustain a political consensus on infrastructure major issues.

Step two is getting our investment priorities right. A greater share of public spending on transport infrastructure should be allocated to roads and targeted at projects that provide a significant and timely boost. These include maintenance and bringing forward upgrades to heavily congested arteries that provide access to international gateways such as major ports.

Step three is being bolder and acting faster. In many areas of transport infrastructure, the scale of investment required and the consequences of failing to deliver are significant. All options for funding investment in the road network, including road pricing, should be considered. The timetable for the independent commission set up to look into airport capacity must be accelerated. A final report this side of the next election is essential to giving the next government a clear mandate for taking forward its favoured option.

In EEF's opinion, there is a strong case for allowing investment in additional runway capacity at Heathrow - it is the most viable way to maintain the UK's status as a global aviation hub. Much of the infrastructure and transport links are already in place, making it easier to fund without recourse to the hard-pressed taxpayer than construction of a brand new airport.

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