Article - Issue 65, December 2015

Prioritising infrastructure

Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng

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Britain’s infrastructure is under pressure. The rail network is overstretched. London needs more investment in its transport systems. Many parts of the country have inadequate broadband. Security of energy supply continues to be a challenge. Clearly the recently formed National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) will have its work cut out as it tackles some of the most important issues that face the UK’s engineering community.

Modelled on the recommendation by Sir John Armitt CBE FREng in 2012 in his independent review of long term infrastructure planning for the Labour party, the NIC will be an independent authority that will define cost-effective responses to specific national needs. The commission, chaired by Lord Adonis, the former Labour Transport Secretary, will make recommendations to government for future investment. Intended as a standing body that reports to successive governments, the commissioners will also include Sir John Armitt and Lord Heseltine, a champion of the importance of regional development.

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng

The NIC will consider the evidence for alternative infrastructure solutions and importantly, it will also examine the financial models that government put forward in its response. The details of this process are still to be determined but the hope is that this approach will provide a robust and transparent basis for government decisions on future infrastructure investments.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has asked this first Commission to investigate ways to improve the transport infrastructure in the north of England, particularly east-west across the Pennines, ways to upgrade London’s transport system and ways to ensure that the national energy infrastructure is managing supply and demand in the most cost efficient manner. With these three complex challenges to tackle and a deadline of the 2016 Budget, the NIC will need to work fast.

Each of these tasks will be a substantial undertaking that will involve consideration of alternative technical and funding options. Expert evidence and robust analysis will be essential to enable the Commissioners to reach their conclusions. To be successful, the NIC must also ensure that, as the work progresses, politicians and the public understand the challenges and opportunities of alternative scenarios. To demonstrate that the Commission has followed a fair and open process, it will need to build a broad consensus on the assumptions that lie behind each potential solution.

As a nation, we have traditionally taken a long time to reach decisions on infrastructure projects. Once committed, however, in recent years industry has demonstrated its ability to deliver major projects on time and to budget. Crossrail, the Olympics and Heathrow Terminal 5 are all good examples. Shortening the decision-making period for major infrastructure projects is the next step to increase the value that such projects bring to national competitiveness and productivity.

Two essential requirements must underpin the work of the NIC for it to achieve early success. The first is developing a process that will build trust and understanding with the public. Stakeholder engagement and consultation on complex technical issues requires a particular set of skills. Securing public acceptability has to happen during the process rather than being left to government afterwards. How this will be achieved is not obvious, but there are well established consensus processes used in the making of national and international standards that may be of value. Such processes can bring together consumers, industry and government to agree on the principles and outcomes that everyone is seeking.

The second challenge for the Commission is to win the confidence of business. The Chancellor may have pledged £100 billion of spending on infrastructure by 2020 but the total funding requirement will be several times greater than this. Most of that funding will have to come from private investment. To ensure that the NIC’s vital work to develop recommendations is not wasted, it will need to be confident that, for the foreseeable future, governments will be committed to a stable, consistent policy for transport and energy infrastructure. In the first instance, this will require clear and decisive government action on the NIC’s recommendations post Budget 2016. Only then will investors be assured that the NIC has the appropriate influence and authority. Only then will industry be confident that this excellent initiative is here to stay.

Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng
Editor-in-Chief

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