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Infrastructure blog

Delivering an infrastructure revolution

19 February 2020

Nick Smallwood from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority discusses the three P’s that the Government must focus on to improve infrastructure delivery: people, principles and performance.

Delivering an infrastructure revolution
Projects such as Crossrail must take into account complex technological demands much earlier

Boris Johnson's government aims to deliver an ‘infrastructure revolution’ - increasing investment to level up communities across the Union and decarbonise our economy.

However, it is important to note, the government’s ambitions and the public benefits which come with it, can only be realised if we also revolutionise the way major infrastructure projects are delivered.

If many of our projects continue to be both late and over budget and fail to deliver the benefits they promised, we won’t make the most out of our increased investment.

Whilst plans will be further set out at Budget, in the National Infrastructure Strategy and the Comprehensive Spending Review in the summer, industry and government must take action to begin revolutionising delivery now through existing projects and programmes. Our Pipeline of projects, as will be published in the National Infrastructure and Construction Pipeline in the Autumn, will depend on it.

Both government and industry have important roles to play; one cannot do this without the other. We need to work together to step up on all those projects where we simply need to do better.

It is the IPA’s role to catalyse this delivery revolution and I believe we will do this if we focus on the three ‘P’s: people, principles and performance:

  • Ensure our people have the tools, competence and skills they need to deliver.
  • Be clear about the principles of delivery and getting the basics right.
  • Drive a step change in performance, together with industry, so we can meet future challenges.

People and skills

I’ll start with people first as they are the most important asset we have.

As I look around, I see the skills we need are changing rapidly and the tools people need to deliver are more different than ever before.

We have seen on Crossrail, for example, that we must pay greater attention to systems integration. Projects which traditionally may have been viewed as solely civil engineering, can no longer be viewed as such. It is crucial that right from the initial planning phase, we understand the complex technological demands of the project and the skills in our workforce to meet them.

Our people need to be able to manage technology in ways we never have before. This means we must attract both new generations and new skills to the industry, and upskill our existing workforce.

It is only by working together, with the right people, capability and capacity in place, we can achieve all that we have set out to.


As we all know, the success or failure of a project is often determined in its early stages as it’s much harder to turn a project around further down the line. We need to get the basics right at the beginning and then freeze the scope. This can only be done if we get far more consistent at estimating costs and developing our benchmarking capability.

It is no secret that our issues with planning, scheduling, and costings across major projects, have meant our current performance as a whole is not good enough. Too often projects are late and over budget, and this directly impacts the benefits to the public. So the IPA will be doing more to closely support those delivering our projects, to make sure the basics are completed on every single project no matter what the scale.


And so the final piece of this puzzle is improving productivity so we can drive better performance through delivery and into operations and management.

We know that the construction sector is the least productive industry in the UK economy. More than 20% below the average output per hour for the whole economy in 2017. This alone shows that in order to deliver this infrastructure revolution, the industry must innovate and modernise. As industry’s biggest infrastructure client, the government has an important role to play and has considerable influence in the market.

But I believe we have to become a more informed and intelligent client, to drive the change we all want to see. It is for us to help create the right conditions and direction for, you, industry to innovate and grow.

We must use our purchasing power to drive changes in the marketplace. Changes that we will only see if we are specific in our contracts with what we expect.

Improving productivity can only happen if we are able to deliver using technology and modern methods of construction to our advantage. This in turn, must be unlocked by government taking decisive action to aggregate demand and enable innovation. Industry has told us that this should begin with our approach to specifications and standards.

If we are able to harmonise, digitise and rationalise these standards, and set clear expectations to the market, we should deliver infrastructure smarter, quicker and for less cost.

Of course, there is excellent practice already out there. Highways England’s A14 project, has seen excellent collaboration through the integrated delivery team, efficiency savings and is due to complete by the end of 2020 as planned. If we look at Building Information Modeling (BIM), we’ve made great progress since 2011, but we need to go much further with Digital Twins and other innovations. Therefore going forward the IPA will be driving this agenda by doing more to identify and share lessons learned where we can step up and perform better.

We plan to drive the implementation of Transforming Infrastructure Performance, an ambitious and long-term transformation programme, that seeks to address the fundamental and inter-related challenges facing UK infrastructure.

It rightly challenges deliverability and performance with a particular focus on modern methods of construction and challenges the supply chain to take out waste.


Delivering all major infrastructure projects is a challenge but we need to level up in project management, in our people, in the skills available and in all regions of the UK.

We will focus on creating a step change in the performance of infrastructure, closing the well-known productivity gap, and encouraging strategic investment.

But we can only do this if our people have the tools to deliver, we get the basics right and government and industry work closely together to meet the performance challenges.

Let’s focus and work together, so we can deliver both the infrastructure and delivery revolution that we all know is possible.

Investing in the right skills, getting the basics right and improving productivity are not new problems. But there is now fresh impetus to take bolder action to tackle them. And I am committed to the IPA taking a leading role.

  • Nick Smallwood, CEO at Infrastructure and Projects Authority