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Build? Build? Build? What any Covid-19 stimulus package should prioritise

29 June 2020

Facilitate greater working away from the office by enabling 5G investment and make space for active transport use across cities. These were some of the findings from our call for evidence on the future of infrastructure spending in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Build? Build? Build? What any Covid-19 stimulus package should prioritise
How can the government instigate an economic recovery in the wake of Covid-19? Image credit: Shutterstock

As governments around the world survey the damage caused by Covid-19, many will be looking to identify quick win items to support a social and economic recovery. Eyes will naturally turn to infrastructure investment because it is:

  • More tangible than other public spending
  • An investment in an asset that endures, with quantifiable secondary benefits
  • Historically not invested in at the rate required so what is 'needed' is often easy to spot - particularly repair and maintenance
  • Currently a labour-intensive process compared to other industries

No wonder then that the UK Government is set to make announcements in the coming days for an economic stimulus package based around infrastructure and construction. But what should a package look like? And is there an opportunity to reinvent our infrastructure systems for the future, so that we don't see filling in potholes as a cause of celebration but as a peculiar cure to a symptom that shouldn't exist in the first place?

Over the last few weeks, ICE, on behalf of the Infrastructure Client Group, have undertaken a call for evidence which drew in views far and wide from across the infrastructure and construction landscape. Thank you to the over 75 individuals and groups who submitted evidence or gave up their time to be interviewed.

Infrastructure priorities in the new normal

One of the key questions asked as part of that call for evidence was what the new priorities for the infrastructure we need to build may be. Recognising that both social behaviours and expectations may have shifted due to Covid-19, this question sought to draw out key insights from the infrastructure community.

There was strong support for some of the areas we identified in the Green Paper:

  • The need to accelerate digital infrastructure investment to facilitate greater working away from the office and more economic activity taking place online, although we were rightly challenged on overlooking mobile, particularly 5G, investment. Without this investment we risk creating/entrenching socio-economic divides as the world goes online.
  • The need to make space for active travel across cities. Without this investment we could see a shift to car use, as economic activity returns but social distancing means public transport capacity is reduced.

Alongside these areas, there was also support for investment to make public spaces safer from future disease transmission. This includes retrofitting assets to make them touch free in the public realm and investment in better ventilation. This would not only safeguard against potential future waves, but transition towards a public realm that limits the potential spread of future epidemics and pandemics.

Achieving net-zero

While these are near-term investments, there was strong and concerted feedback that Covid-19 does not overshadow the long-term drivers that previously existed: population growth, resilience and principal among them – rapid de-carbonisation and achieving net-zero.

The Committee on Climate Change made this point strongly last week, while in 2020 global emissions are expected to fall by a record 5-10%, the effects of the Covid-19 lockdown are only temporary. A sharp fall in global emissions in 2020 will not address the cumulative problem of rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. CO₂ emissions must be cut consistently year after year until they reach net-zero globally to slow and halt global warming.

Given the UK is not making adequate progress in preparing for climate change, any stimulus should have achieving net-zero at its heart. For this to be truly effective will require a plan, not a collection of uncoordinated announcements.

Identifying future infrastructure system interventions

Another strong theme from the call for evidence, was the need to take the opportunity to both plan new assets and retrofit existing assets to make a National Digital Twin a reality. As one response put it, there is a need for: 'Developing connected digital twins to help model the effects of changing infrastructure investment decisions to follow the joint objectives of managing Covid-19 adaptations and the pursuit of net zero targets. '

Getting a greater understanding of the infrastructure system in use through digitalisation, can unlock multiple benefits including allowing asset owners to better test, plan, predict, manage and make interventions of their assets as part of the wider infrastructure system. We will increasingly live in a world where infrastructure is used more flexibly, we need to move to an approach where we understand the impact of that flexibility on assets and plan accordingly.

A shift to viewing some of the enabling technologies for digitalisation &ndash such as sensors, as an asset class and a programme requiring investment, will go a long way. This must sit alongside a re-skilling programme that embeds digital skills across the construction and infrastructure ecosystem.

The framework for a stimulus

These areas then provide the framework for a stimulus that not only facilitates a socio-economic recovery but ensures that recovery builds a more resilient and sustainable Britain.

  • A near-term focus to rapidly rollout fibre and 5G, investment in intra-city travel options including cycling and walking, and retrofitting assets to limit the spread of future diseases.
  • Looking to the future and continuing to focus on key drivers of change while taking action in the here and now, principally de-carbonising the economy and achieving the 2050 net-zero target.
  • Investing to embed the technologies such as sensors in new and existing assets as the foundation for a National Digital Twin and making corresponding investment in digital skills.

A full White Paper with recommendations on how to transform the delivery of infrastructure, will be published in late July.

  • Chris Richards, director of policy at Institution of Civil Engineers