We have become lost in the ‘what’ and ‘how’ when it comes to UK infrastructure, and do not spend long enough considering the ‘why’, according to Sir John Armitt, new President of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).
Delivering his address to industry leaders and politicians - the former Olympic Delivery Authority Chair and Commissioner on the recently established National Infrastructure Commission - said that in the face of conflicting political and public views, lack of funds, skills shortages and growing demands on infrastructure, it was time to start asking ‘why’ when it comes to decision making.
“Why do we need this project? Why one project over alternatives? Why is this seventy year solution more appropriate, or will a twenty year solution suffice - and can we make better use of existing infrastructure. What are the benefits, risks and opportunities of each?” he said.
“When faced with tough choices, Government, industry, investors and the public alike should always start by asking ‘why’. This will ensure choices are strategic, and that public and private money, charges to customers, and investors’ funds are used for best collective benefit.”
Sir John welcomed Government’s adoption of a National Infrastructure Commission, which he recommended in his 2013 Infrastructure Review, and said he was delighted to be appointed as a Commissioner.
“The public pay for infrastructure - either as taxpayers, shareholders or customers of utilities – they are the end users of it, and are impacted by its construction. As a result, politicians are ultimately held to account by the voter and are bound to interfere for good and bad. We cannot change this.
“But we need a mechanism which provides dispassionate analysis of our long-term infrastructure needs and acts as a catalyst for reaching consensus on those needs. The effects of achieving consensus cannot be overstated – it could enable the kind of infrastructure revolution not seen since our great forebears in the 19th Century. I am pleased to see cross party support for a Commission, and to be part of something I have advocated and believe in.” he said.
He added that engineers, working with other professions, have a responsibility to help decision makers answer the ‘how, ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions, and ensure the Commission’s choices are based on independent, expert evidence.
He announced that ICE is leading a coalition of business, academic, environment and industry experts to produce a ‘National Needs Assessment’ which will feed into the Commission and underpin its work. Sir John will be at the helm as ICE President, and the NIC Commissioner responsible for examining and gathering evidence on the UK’s long term needs.
“We will begin work on an independent, evidence based needs assessment. We will harness the group’s expertise to help the Commission develop a shared long term vision to 2050, and ultimately help to inform the many complex choices ahead.” he said.
The National Needs Assessment, to be published in autumn 2016, will draw from data, analysis, open consultations and evidence hearings, and set out what we are likely to need from our infrastructure up to 2050, considering factors such as climate change and population growth. It will then set out different options for meeting those needs, and will be designed to inform both national and regional infrastructure plans.
Organisations and individuals joining ICE in the coalition include CBI, KPMG, University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, Pinsent Masons, Graham Dalton (Independent), National Grid, London First, Green Alliance, Transport for Greater Manchester and the Scottish Council for Development and Industry.
Lord Adonis, Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, commented: "Thinking more long term about the UK's biggest infrastructure projects is at the heart of our plans for the new Commission.
"That's why it's great news that Sir John Armitt is bringing his huge experience to our team, and his work with ICE is set to be a real asset to help fulfil our goal to ensure Britain has the world-class infrastructure it needs in the future."
Download Sir John's inaugural address