Is our infrastructure becoming more sustainable? The news is good but we still have a long way to go

Shaun McCarthy

In the past decade, the construction sector has been forced to consider its sustainability impacts. Initially this was from direct action by NGOs, the protests at Twyford Down and the Manchester Airport runway (remember Swampy the Mole?)

These were the first wake-up calls for major clients, the seven-year public enquiry for Heathrow Terminal 5 led to the first mega-infrastructure project to have a significant sustainability plan.

The promise to deliver “the most sustainable Games ever” for London 2012 led to a rigorous sustainability plan from the Olympic Delivery Authority and independent assurance by the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012. Construction contractors began to realise that the intelligent client of the future will require them to deliver more sustainable solutions and be able to demonstrate their achievements with hard facts.

The villain here is not sustainability but bad supply chain management

In the rail sector, mega-projects such as Crossrail, Thameslink and Great Western Electrification are setting the bar very high and holding their supply chains to account for delivering on their promises.

However, this remains patchy and there are still examples of projects setting very low ambitions and seeing sustainability as an optional extra.

The construction sector is a difficult one to influence. It comprises a small number of major players at the top who deliver very little themselves, they attempt to control a deep and wide supply chain comprising literally hundreds of thousands of sub-contractors, consultants and suppliers.

This supply chain does not have adequate capacity to deliver more sustainable solutions and we are heading to a situation where main contractors will have a very small pool of competent suppliers and a very large pool of less competent ones.

This will lead to the competent few winning the work and being unable to deal with demand and the incompetent many either surviving by delivering the many less sustainable projects or going under.

Basic economic theory says if you have a small number of suppliers for a large amount of work the price will go up, perpetuating the myth that sustainability costs more.

The villain here is not sustainability but bad supply chain management.

I am pleased to see the sector has set aside traditional competitive rivalry to develop the Supply Chain Sustainability School.

Launched in June 2012, this was a collaborative initiative by seven major contractors which has grown to 15 by May 2014.

I have the privilege of chairing the leadership group for this programme of work. It is a virtual learning environment for the supply chain with some smart software to enable companies providing 170 different categories of supply to perform a bespoke self-assessment relevant to what they do.

They receive a 10-point action plan selected from over 500 carefully chosen resources based on what they do and how much they currently know. They can re-assess to get another ten actions, then another ten, then another 10 etc.

Some 5,000 companies are taking part in this free to use initiative now, this is still scratching the surface of the industry but it is growing at a rate of 250 new members aq month and new groups within the school are starting to attract new partners.

I hope the likes of Network Rail, the Highways Agency and National Grid will join the infrastructure group this year and that these major clients will contribute to the learning and learn from their own supply chains. Collaboration is key to solving this potential market failure.

Shaun McCarthy is an independent adviser, author and speaker in the field of sustainable business policy and practice