Oh, Darling

It was probably inevitable that the Pre-Budget Report (PBR), the long awaited financial stimulus package, wouldn’t please everybody.

Who’d be Alistair Darling? Stepping into the formidable shoes of Gordon Brown at the Treasury (where he bestrode the narrow world of Whitehall like a grumpy Scots colossus); forced to watch as the banking system collapsed through no fault of his own; presented with the poisoned chalice of trying to find a way out of this huge financial mess while his resurgent boss dashes from international summit to international summit like a dour fiscal superhero, with Darling relegated to Robin in contrast to Brown’s Batman. And all this armed with nothing more than a luxuriant head of snowy hair, a pair of impressive eyebrows, a lugubrious manner, and a lifetime of experience in politics and economics. Poor chap.

It was probably inevitable that the Pre-Budget Report (PBR), the long awaited financial stimulus package touted by Brown as the way to stave off the worst of the recession, wouldn’t please everybody. Hint that you’re going to wave a huge wad of cash around and mention infrastructure investment, and every institution that thinks it might get a sniff of money will flock around faster than a bunch of seagulls when it’s serving time at the chippy. Equally, when the results of the deliberations were announced, it was inevitable that any disappointed parties would complain bitterly.

In fact, the financial stimulus parts of the PBR were rather vague. Some £3bn of capital investment has been brought forward from 2010/11, to be used to improve motorway capacity; build new primary and secondary schools and social housing, and improve existing stocks; and to invest in energy efficiency measures. That’ll please the construction sector and its service industries, all suffering particularly badly from the slowdown in the housing market, and the civil engineering contractors. Energy efficiency is also a laudable investment target, and will likely have a greater impact on carbon emissions than any other sort of capital spending. But other engineering institutions have been queueing up to complain about what they see as Darling’s missed opportunities.

The Society of British Aerospace Companies says that the chancellor should have pumped some cash into the defence industry and the armed forces, and points out that small companies, often the weakest link in the supply chain, need to be supported.

The Freight Transport Association complained that the increase in fuel duty to offset the temporary VAT cut would hit companies’ transport bills. Greenpeace said that Darling had missed an opportunity to pump money into R&D of renewable energy technologies. All of them are looking forward to the full Budget next spring to see whether Darling sees the error of his ways and hearkens to their cries.

The worlds of finance and government funding are murky and complicated and, as we’ve said before, we on The Engineer are scarcely qualified to comment upon them.

But, along with all industry observers, we’ve noted the shift in emphasis in Britain’s engineering base from volume construction to specialist, sometimes even niche, high-technology companies engaged in design, prototyping, and high-spec manufacture.

While these companies may not be feeling the pinch too badly at the moment, as the recession hits the automotive and aerospace majors, they might find their orders beginning to suffer. It’s these firms who are the future of engineering in the UK, and there was precious little for them in Darling’s statement.

The other major engineering projects that we know to be in the pipeline, such as the Royal Navy’s Future Carrier project and the tranche of new power stations, also weren’t mentioned. Some certainty in these areas would surely be welcomed; like the other engineering institutions, we’ll wait and see whether they receive any attention in the main Budget.

Money’s tight, even with Darling’s gargantuan borrowing plans. We can’t all expect a handout. But we can only hope that the short-term stimulus works. One thing we can be sure of, though: if it does work, Gordon will take the credit. If it doesn’t, Alistair will take the blame. It’s what a sidekick is for.

Stuart Nathan

Special Projects Editor