This stream will look at what tends to go wrong with larger infrastructure projects and suggest potential solutions and new approaches
The good news is that chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement largely left infrastructure intact and, despite some end of the world headlines in the run-up, big-ticket schemes, notably HS2, were spared, for now, from being pared back.
That may well come – for some of the later legs of the job – but it seems fairly safe to suggest that the first bit of the scheme can proceed as planned.
The idea that the job would be halted, half-built with tunnels going nowhere and cleared sites left to remain just that, was never really being seriously considered as a likelihood by those involved but, nonetheless, there was a sigh of relief that infrastructure was left alone by the government – and placed front and centre of a recovery plan from a recession that still hasn’t officially started.
The bad news is that big infrastructure schemes have tended to make the wrong sort of headlines in recent years – with the Jubilee line extension, Crossrail and a bypass scheme in Aberdeen all being mired in problems and, frankly, bleeding money.
These things, over time, tend to be forgotten as people marvel at the accomplishments but what would be good is to ally the undoubted wizardry of the industry to build a road in a notoriously wet part of the country or to dig a tunnel within millimetres of existing London Underground tunnels with news that such and such a scheme had come in on budget and on time. The commission will look at new models and solutions to help achieve this.
Among other issues being looked at will be structure and governance, for example the sorts and types of people appointed to boards of major schemes and what sort of oversight they have into them. It came as a big surprise to many when the announcement that Crossrail was going to miss its original deadline of December 2018 was made at the end of the August that year. It certainly came out of the blue, given how trailed its good progress had been up to that point.
The disciplined use of public money, therefore, is another issue for the commission to look at. Maybe some international comparisons can be made to learn lessons from
London mayor Sadiq Khan later said he only learned of the delay two days before it was announced. A Conservative member of the London Assembly, Keith Prince, accused then chairman Terry Morgan of giving “no indication whatsoever that there would be a delay” at a meeting attended by the pair and MPs five weeks before it became public.
Nothing frustrates (and embarrasses) politicians more than being caught on the hop, especially over big-ticket public sector schemes that seem to have turned into black holes where taxpayers’ money disappears into.
The disciplined use of public money, therefore, is another issue for the commission to look at. Maybe some international comparisons can be made to learn lessons from. “Delivering good infrastructure doesn’t have to be done with an English accent,” says one infrastructure leader. “I think we need to look at overseas and make sure we don’t fall into a trap of being little Englanders about all this.”
The design process, the brief and communicating the benefits of controversial schemes, such as HS2, are all part and parcel of making infrastructure schemes successful as well. Most jobs which have gone wrong have one common denominator: the design process and brief have not been fully fleshed out before work has started. The phrase “design changes” is the bete noire of any major contractor and sorting the brief out beforehand, so everyone knows what they are doing and when, is essential.
So, too, is communicating the benefits of controversial schemes, such as HS2. How project heads must wish for some magic door to step through, to look into the future and show paying customers what the actual benefits are rather than having to constantly sell and reiterate them. Since it opened last spring, does really anyone who has used the Elizabeth line now come out of a station and think: “That was terrible. I wish it had never been built”? A problem job’s gestation period is not really given a second thought once the more obvious wow factor, as well as the more humdrum notion that this is better than what was here before, is experienced by the customer. “Just look at how brilliant it is” should be used more often by the likes of Crossrail and Wembley stadium.
Hunt recently dropped in on Laing O’Rourke’s HS2 station scheme at Solihull in a statement visit. “We could have balanced the books with big cuts to capital projects but better transport connections spread wealth and opportunity,” he said.
Infrastructure, then, has for now the government’s backing. The commission is hoping that innovative ideas and thinking can keep it there.
Building the Future Commission
The Building the Future Commission is a year-long project, launched to mark Building’s 180th anniversary, to assess potential solutions and radical new ways of thinking to improve the built environment.
The major project’s work will be guided by a panel of 19 major figures who have signed up to help guide the commission’s work culminatuing culminate in a report published at the end of the year.
The final line-up of commissioners includes figures from the world of contracting, housing development, architecture, policy-making, skills, design, place-making, infrastructure, consultancy and legal.
The commissioners include Lord Kerslake, former head of the civil service, Katy Dowding, executive vice president at Skanska, Richard Steer, chair of Gleeds, Lara Oyedele, president of the Chartered Institute of Housing, Mark Wild, former boss of Crossrail and chief executive of SGN and Simon Tolson, senior partner at Fenwick Elliott. See the full list here.
The project is looking at proposals for change in eight areas:
- Skills and education
- Energy and net zero
- Housing and planning
- Building safety
- Project delivery and digital
- Workplace culture and leadership
- Creating communities
Building the Future will also undertake a countrywide tour of roundtable discussions with experts around the regions as part of a consultation programme in partnership with the regional arms of industry body Constructing Excellence. It will also set up a young person’s advisory panel.
We will also be setting up an ideas hub and we want to hear your views.
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