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Big decisions will shape the next decade

27 January 2020

The Prime Minister's hugely important decisions on the future of HS2 and 5G broadband will shape the coming decade.

Big decisions will shape the next decade
HS2 high speed rail link

Both HS2 and 5G broadband have huge significance for our industry and many thousands of our members and other infrastructure professionals working on them now. I won't even try to address the political nuances of each decision.

Key driver for infrastructure investment

What we can (and have) advise on is the key driver for infrastructure investment that was identified in the 2016 National Needs Assessment - that of a population growing to 75m by 2050, largely focused on urban centres and the South East. Flexible working is driving the need for connectivity and there's an expectation that passenger numbers will increase by 40% by 2040.

Back in 2016, we identified that congestion on the network was already constraining economic growth with 26% of morning peak trains arriving in London already over capacity - a picture that is repeated across the country with peak time travel.

De-carbonising the economy

Congestion of the network is one key issue - and a new line connecting North to South is probably the only viable way of increasing capacity and reliability - there is also a need to focus on de-carbonising the economy. This is perhaps more of an imperative now that the Government has legislated that we should be net zero carbon by 2050. Creating a new bespoke route will free up capacity on existing routes for freight as well as taking vehicles off the roads with the transport sector accounting for over 20% of carbon emissions.

Improving productivity

There is a huge imperative on our industry to be efficient and to improve productivity - a 5% improvement across a £100bn programme is an eye watering sum in itself. I attended a very insightful meeting last week on just this subject and it is really good to hear that the (relatively) new CEO of the IPA - Nick Smallwood - is truly focused on driving change in the way that major projects are designed, procured and delivered to make sure that there is a real focus on efficiency. Coming from an oil and gas background he absolutely understands the vital link between status of design completion and the cost of change - and he cannot understand why on earth 3D design isn't used everywhere, every time.

A round table meeting last week saw 20 of the industries leaders discuss how we might better drive productivity improvements in to construction related activities through technology and off site manufacturing.

5G broadband rollout

All of this brings us to 5G broadband and how fast we can roll out this super fast technology. This isn't about how fast we can download an HD movie - it is all about the way we manage big data and the impact that will have on our lives in the future. Robotic vehicles will be entirely dependent on 5G, the ability of smart city networks to be smart and to help the way we live our lives will rely on connectivity and speed. Our ability to manage energy networks in a sustainable way will be hugely influenced by this too. If we want to allow de-carbonised energy production - through wind and solar, we have to be able to manage the inherent volatility in supply as sunshine and winds vary.

Should we aim to get there as fast and cheaply as we can or should we be mindful of the opportunity someone might have to disconnect the system in 20 years’ time when we are totally dependent on it.

As I said at the start of this piece - these decisions have big implications for our sector, and the public at large.

  • Paul Sheffield, President 2019-2020 at ICE