The UK must learn from its infrastructure successes to avoid another Davies Commission debacle

Jason Millet

This month the government put off a final decision on expanding airport capacity in the South East until summer 2016. The Davies Commission found that increased capacity will add an extra £147bn to the UK economy, but given that this issue has been under discussion for the past 16 years, we need to ensure that it really is all systems go when the green light is - hopefully - finally given next year.

So in order to move quickly to delivery, what are the lessons for government from recent large-scale infrastructure projects? How can we ensure that we capitalise on the successes and try to avoid the pitfalls? These are issues our clients come up against time and time again. Indeed, we recently held an event with clients to share best practice and discuss five common themes across major projects:

  1. Focus on outcomes and wider benefits. People should always come first. Whether they are future users or those who will be impacted during construction. With major programmes comes the need for major stakeholder engagement every step of the way and understanding and doing as much as possible to mitigate the impact of both construction and the finished scheme. As an industry in the past we have just focused on getting something built, but not really understanding the wider impacts on the community. What are the wider implications of the project? How does it support UK plc? We need to show a different perspective on what needs to be achieved.
  2. Use the DCO process. As we’ve found working with Highways England and EDF Energy, the Development Consent Order process is by far the best way to move to construction as quickly as possible. With a fixed timetable and a final decision from the Secretary of State, this process provides certainty to the project now that the debate and discussion has taken place.
  3. Build and maintain trust with stakeholders. The past experience of major programmes has taught us that taking the public with you is crucial to project success. Especially through the planning phase, make sure that the major commitments that you make are ones that you can stick to over the long term. Inform the public and other interested stakeholders of your commitments and be mindful that trust is hard to win and easily lost.
  4. Share success and good news. We’ve recently completed the redevelopment of Birmingham New Street Station, working in partnership with Network Rail, and there are many examples, such as the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, of best practice that can be shared to the benefit of future projects. At New Street, we recruited over 100 apprentices and left Birmingham with a skills legacy that is the envy of many other cities. These are positive stories to be shared with government, the public and industry - and who are better ambassadors for your project than the people carrying out the work day in, day out? In this regard, TfL and Thameslink are leading the way with the technical experts telling the public what’s happening and when through a major advertising campaign - and doing it much more effectively than “a spokesperson” ever could.
  5. Listen and learn. Providing opportunities for comment and debate throughout the life of the project, on such a large scale, requires constant communication to stakeholders and the public to show them how it will impact them and give them a voice to shape the programme. This is working well at Heathrow where the plans have been developed - and no doubt strengthened - with local community and stakeholder input.

The development of a new runway is unequivocally a complex challenge. But one that the UK, with its wealth of experience, is ready to meet. Following this guidance will surely make the process go a little more smoothly.

Jason Millett is chief operating officer, major programmes and infrastructure, at Mace