Delivering on infrastructure promises

By - World Infrastructure Journal

In such unprecedented times, preparing for tomorrow seems like an impossible feat. However, it is vital that we have the essential infrastructure networks needed to lead us out of our public health crisis and tackle emerging challenges.

A recent Public Policy Projects (PPP) Virtual Infrastructure Breakfast featuring Nick Baveystock, Director General of the Institute of Civil Engineers, discussed exactly this. Grappling with the challenge of delivering the infrastructure necessary to level up Britain, Mr Baveystock led the debate on the future of infrastructure, and how to get there.

Speaking directly to Stephen Hammond, MP for Wimbledon and Chair of the Infrastructure Policy Board at PPP, Mr Baveystock outlined the challenges he sees for infrastructure in the future. He stated that, “while Covid will change a number of things moving forward, there are still a number of immutable challenges,” specifically citing predicted global population increase and aging demographic.

Mr Baveystock explained that this will not only add another one in twelve people to provide infrastructure for but also affect the tax base. Given this is the source of most project funding, it remains uncertain if an economic downturn may mean developments simply do not have the funds to go ahead.

Climate change, a persistent threat across all industries and nations, was also raised as a major challenge for infrastructure in particular. There is a recognition in government and industry that massive steps need to be taken from our current level in order to decarbonise the economy. As one of the most significant contributors to carbon levels, it is vital to the success of mitigating climate change, that infrastructure is at the forefront of this shift.

How to build a better future

Despite Chancellor Rishi Sunak allocating over £640bn in the latest budget towards infrastructure for the next five years, the financial implications of attempting to control the Covid-19 pandemic still loom overhead. In order to alleviate the growing financial burden of the pandemic, Mr Baveystock said that most infrastructure projects across the country “will have to do more for less. ” He suggested that this will be tough, especially given that many government measures may now not have the long-term foresight and positive impact that public bodies are looking for within their own projects.

It is vital, therefore, to be as efficient as possible which means evaluating every part of the development process, starting at the very beginning. Mr Baveystock stressed that developers must “not immediately think of the engineering” but instead weigh up all questions rather than “jumping to a solution. ” Going further, he said that fundamentally infrastructure should always be designed for its social value. Therefore, ‘what it can do for people’ should be the pivotal question and means that local decision making is much better informed.

“The role of government is to set the fiscal and regulatory framework whereas regional and local authorities [role] is to interpret that in the best way within long term plans and for the people they are looking out for,” Mr Baveystock explained. Social value, according to him, is rarely kept at the forefront of the development and “we must work hard on being able to define what we want in social terms. ”

Currently, projects are “good at overseeing designs in construction [but] less good at retaining a real focus on clarity of vision and clarity of outcome. ” Clients could be the real driving force behind this change if they consider whole life value and not fixate on the capital cost. By engaging communities and clients early on, these projects could best suit the needs of the people, while driving forward cutting-edge technology and sustainability.

A not too distant future?

There are multiple areas of necessary infrastructure improvements that the Government should prioritise. These included greater investment in better quality fibre, encouraging the use of low or zero-carbon transport and renewable energy, and ultimately ensuring the workforce has the skills available to make these changes.

Yet not all is as bad as it may seem because, as Mr Baveystock puts it: “Are we ahead – absolutely! ” The discussion considered the extent that, in Britain, we have a tendency to think everything we do will go wrong and always automatically think that the UK is behind other nations. Instead, Mr Baveystock branded the UK a world leader in infrastructure and technological advancements with large scale projects such as Crossrail very successful in global comparison.

He does admit, however, that these projects are routinely plagued by inefficiencies. These are caused by a lack of adequate planning, mitigating risk and not focusing on the desired end result, all of which can lead to costly delays and pauses in the process. Participants relayed anecdotes about seemingly absurd situations of long applications for bridge demolitions for electrical development only to find out much later that this work had already been done underneath, 30 years before.

It is this lack of forward planning and thorough evaluation that Mr Baveystock said can cause issues in creating successful development. “You shouldn’t in principle, start going down a project without having tied down the outcome and scope along the supply chain,” he said. Instead, “collectively we need to be saying we are going to specify outcome terms – social value, lowering carbon, mitigating climate change from the very senior level” and then follow the correct processes and procedures to get there.

Colin Matthews, Chairman of Highways England and EDF Energy questioned Mr Baveystock on how best to manage this, ensuring good and effective delivery rather than just the fastest route possible. He responded, saying “there is a tendency to believe that by throwing money at something it makes it quicker, nailing down scope and opportunity is a much better use of investors’ money than just trying to accelerate it. ” Comment from Baroness Nicky Morgan, meanwhile, challenged this current investment model, suggesting that in the future, direct public investment could be a much better model but is an area that has yet to be properly assessed.

Securing a sustainable future

Mr Baveystock concluded the webinar by reiterating his earlier message that in projects, “the power lies with the client” and it is their responsibility to drive the possibilities of infrastructure forward. By having the big debates on renewables, electric transport and net-zero solutions now, it will be ensured that these are delivered, not just promised.

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