The construction and development industries have a special part to play in the government’s industrial strategy. We have to optimise how we approach infrastructure and asset-use to make sure it is a success
Responses to the government’s proposed industrial strategy will have been submitted earlier this month. I really hope the construction and development industries have used this as an opportunity to take the time to reflect on the crucial role we can play in shaping our country’s future economic growth. The strategy has drawn some criticism for being too high level and lacking detail. This is not a reason to disengage. Rather, I hope Building readers will have been responding with their comments and recommendations to help shape this country’s future economic strategy for a post-Brexit world.
We have an important role to play in supporting the development of buildings, facilities and places that help enable greater economic growth, as well as optimising existing economic-focussed assets to be forward-looking and not a reflection of past decisions. We also have a vital role in delivering and maintaining infrastructure for the movement of people and goods.
We need to consider how we can help secure and deliver the right infrastructure - both within localities and across regions - to encourage and support an agglomeration of investment and activity along growth corridors, growth clusters, and in specific places. We can’t tell markets how to behave, but we can influence behaviours to drive investment in science and manufacturing by creating the right supporting infrastructure.
Currently, there is an understandable emphasis on building the homes we need. But it’s important these plans form part of, or are connected to, broader sustainable communities where we all want to work, live, and play. We need to create places which offer more than just homes if they are to be sustainable: they must offer work, leisure, education and other services. We know from the past that soulless and disconnected estates, away from jobs and amenities, are not sustainable or attractive places to live or invest.
Too often, mixed use is just a bunch of apartments sitting on top of a metro supermarket. It can be so much more
I also believe we can be more radical about the way we mix activities - our thinking about what makes a mixed development and place has become too narrow. Too often, mixed use is just a bunch of apartments sitting on top of a metro supermarket. It can be so much more. Almost all employment-based activity in the modern economy can sit alongside where people live. Think of the Shard; there are shops, a viewing platform, offices, high-end residential accommodation, and a hotel, layered into a single building. The challenge is to take this outside of the heart of a great city, and think about why we can’t do that elsewhere.
Away from cities, we still tend to separate employment and home - why?
Obviously some economic and power-generating activities do not sit well alongside a residential block. But if we start to take some risks, we might find that people really get drawn to the sense of place modelled by 19th century industrialists, such as John Cadbury’s Bourneville. Let’s bring our thinking forward and really start to mix it up. And let’s not forget the homes, buildings and places we construct now need to be of enduring quality and capable of adapting to remain relevant in a world of constant change.
This brings me to the release of surplus public estate where a new use is required. Although this is positive and appropriate, we need to broaden the focus to maximise the use of retained public assets so that they can more effectively and efficiently support economic and service development. We need to be clearer about how we can optimise the use of public assets, gain maximum value and enable productive rationalisation through a different lens. Change means there will always be a supply of surplus land and buildings. But resistance to change and to future rationalisation strategies will grow unless the drive is to maximise the use, value and impact of retained assets. This needs careful thought and collaboration with users and occupiers.
This leads me back to infrastructure where there is also a continuing need for asset optimisation - from the roll-out of digital railways, that will allow more trains to run on the national network, to the significant need to improve the condition of many roads across the UK, most notably in local areas. This is fast becoming a personal crusade given the state of roads in my local area. However, it is clear that this is not just a problem in Tunbridge Wells. Too many local roads across the UK do not meet international standards and must act as a real deterrent to economic growth and investment. Local roads provide valuable connections for people, goods and services. They need to be seen as an integral part of our total network of infrastructure assets that play an important role in connecting our national and regional transport infrastructure to local places. This matters to all of us.
The development and construction industries have a valuable role to play in supporting and enabling the success of the UK’s future industrial strategy. We need to care about what it says and feed in positive ideas to help shape a strategy that is relevant, modern and forward-looking, creating more winners, both by place and sector, and not just backing the successes that already exist.
Richard McCarthy is senior director strategic services at Capita