SMH: Communities need more say in road building. August 16, 2014. Chris Walton
The Lane Cove Tunnel fiasco has shown the problems that occur when governments do not properly oversee infrastructure delivery. Photo: Bloomberg
Stop for a minute and imagine what we could build with another $4 billion in the infrastructure pot.
Evidence from the Lane Cove Tunnel case in the Supreme Court last week provides the community with a rare insight into the behind-the-scenes machinations of infrastructure selection, development and delivery in Australia.
So far, we’ve heard that Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s close adviser Tony Shepherd was involved in driving up traffic forecasts, that incentives were used to lure investors and that large payments were made back to the NSW government – all to keep politicians, construction companies, investors and consultants happy.
Where were the community’s needs or views in all of this? With so many competing and hidden agendas you could be forgiven for thinking you were reading a run-down of the next episode of Utopia, the ABC’s latest satire on nation building.
However, problems in infrastructure development are no laughing matter, particularly given our governments’ drive to define their legacies by the number of ribbons they cut and the size of the projects they build.
How can politics and big business be at the controls of infrastructure development while the community that will ultimately pay for and use it is completely shut out?
One positive that has come from the Lane Cove Tunnel fiasco is that the public has been shown the problems that occur when governments do not properly oversee infrastructure delivery. While it can be argued the Lane Cove Tunnel was an outsourced private sector project, the government at all times still had a fundamental responsibility to ensure the project was developed and managed in the best interests of taxpayers and the community at large.
The problem is that successive governments have cut so much engineering and technical expertise from government agencies such as Roads and Maritime Services they simply no longer have the capacity to hold the private sector to account. Governments have effectively become cashed-up, uninformed purchasers while big business fat cats look to where they can find profits.
Without enough of this expertise, governments are wasting huge sums of money. The imperative to fix this problem is the magnitude of this waste.
As a nation this year we will spend $32.9 billion on infrastructure, with $20 billion of that to be spent on roads. Recent data from Deloitte Access Economics found on average major infrastructure projects blow out by 12.7 per cent. This means governments will waste $4.18 billion this year.
If our governments made a comparatively minute investment in engineering and technical expertise, much of this waste could be mitigated. Imagine what we could build with another $4.18 billion?
It is penny wise and pound stupid to cut the engineers who will achieve best value for the taxpayer. It is like renovating your house without a plan and giving the builder a blank cheque.
Multiple parliamentary inquiries and reports, industry stakeholders and even members of governments (granted, sometimes only in private) agree about what is needed to stop this gargantuan waste.
There are five things:
1. Rebuild engineering expertise in governments – where engineers are obliged to get the best value for the public.
2. Invest in long-term planning, strategy and capacity building in infrastructure.
3. Build engineering skills across the private and public sectors.
4. Recognise and accept the advice of technical experts – the people that know how to scope, build and design infrastructure.
5. Lock in capital and maintenance funding.
It’s clear that we cannot loosen the grip that politics and business have on infrastructure.
However, given the economic imperative to build productivity in our economy and our community’s need for better infrastructure, surely it is time governments took a first step and equipped themselves with appropriate levels of engineering and technical capacity.
If it means better, cheaper infrastructure, they have a responsibility to have the best engineering expertise for our roads.
Chris Walton is chief executive of Professionals Australia, an association that represents 25,000 engineers working across the public and private sector to deliver infrastructure.