The competition that really matters

They happen every four years, the excitement is palpable, national pride is on the line, and no-one ever gives much credit to the runners-up. No, not World Cups or even Olympic Games – we are talking here (of course) about the great infrastructure judging contests in the US and UK.

The US version, known as the “Report Card” and compiled by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), kicks the tyres of US infrastructure every four years and then delivers its verdict on the quality of said infrastructure in no less than 16 different sectors.

The most recent version last year made sorry reading. Overall, US infrastructure was handed a “D+” grade (slightly better, believe it or not, than the overall “D” achieved in 2009). No fewer than 11 of the 16 sectors were rated as either “D+”, “D” or “D-”. The ‘star pupil’ was solid waste with a “B-”. The lowest grades – no doubt accompanied by a request to see the school principal – were posted by inland waterways and levees.

This set a low bar for the recently unveiled UK version, known as the “State of the Nation scorecard” and produced by the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE). Given that the scorecard measures only six sectors, it is admittedly not an exact comparison.

However, the UK picture appears to be a little brighter (and to have achieved a neat balance) with two “B” grades, two “C” grades and two “D” grades. Strategic transport and water are the UK’s outstanding students while local transport and energy need to concentrate harder in class.

Hence, the UK can be said to have eased its way over the bar to claim victory, even though there is clearly no room for complacency (indeed, the UK grades overall show stagnation compared with four years previously, compared with the US’s slight improvement).

The scorecard noted the weaknesses exposed by the winter floods of 2013/14 and reflected that the UK’s infrastructure would henceforth need to become more resilient and “future proofed”.

Whether the UK rises to this challenge may determine whether the US either continues to trail behind or closes the gap in four years’ time. It will, as ever, be an eagerly awaited outcome.