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Infrastructure blog

How can we transform infrastructure, both old and new?

03 August 2021

The APPGI chair shares his thoughts on the soon-to-be-updated Transforming Infrastructure Performance programme.

How can we transform infrastructure, both old and new?
The world is going digital so fasts, and UK infrastructure needs to keep pace. Image credit: Shutterstock

Political attention can sometimes be attracted by the new and shiny. The hard yards of making existing things better does not bring headlines, but can make a difference to millions of people. This is not news - or a choice - but political truths that especially chime in the world of infrastructure.

The reality, of course, is that we need both the benefits that new investment can bring and in how they are delivered, plus improvement in the performance of our existing networks.

I am very hopeful that the upcoming Transforming Infrastructure Performance (TIP) refresh will mark a turning point in a number of ways and be embedded across government.

The effect of Covid-19 on infrastructure

Let me start with what I expect will be an autumn of announcements, with the go-aheads for a number of schemes. Delivering them in an as cost-effective way as possible will be critical.

The pandemic has meant the government has several hundred billions less than it expected just two years ago, so it cannot be business as usual. Securing value is easy to say, but not consistently delivered in the UK.

Learning from the past

There have been various reviews into cost escalation over the years, but they have tended to look at the construction phase of a project. From my ministerial experience, I'm sure a broader vision is needed.

Looking at cost comparisons with similar developed economies is not easy, but the UK appeared to get less for more – less output for more cost. But the build phase was comparable, the problems arose in the years of planning and the processes in project development.

Failing to prepare and design properly would obviously be disastrous, but if the lesson in comparable countries that comparable quality is achieved for less, then the UK must do better. That must include government being a better client. I always thought the GRIP process in rail planning had the most ironic and unself-aware name!

Looking to the future

The world is going digital, in so many ways and so fast. The opportunities are exciting. Extracting the most capacity from the existing networks has been a UK strength for a while, as those operating our transport networks seem to fit a quart into a pint pot every day.

But digitised operation and manufacturing are taking so many sectors of the economy to new levels. That means efficiencies in production, maintenance and lifetime cost. TIP must make sure UK infrastructure keeps pace.

One of the issues most regularly raised with me by business is concern about skills. By that of course, they were meaning the difficulty of bringing the right level of skills into their companies.

I have seen some great initiatives across different parts of the sector, from training schemes to apprenticeship programmes to casting the recruitment net more widely by broadening diversity. I have no doubt that the industry is up for solving the challenges ahead and doing so creatively and urgently. My point is that skills, particularly digital skills, have to be part of an improvement agenda.

Parliament will be looking hard at this area and doing so from a number of perspectives. Some colleagues will want to see infrastructure transformed in their area by new schemes being announced. Some will want capacity bottlenecks removed with tech solutions and so minimising disruption. Many will be concerned about achieving value for taxpayers and especially how opportunities for environmental progress will be achieved. Most will want a combination of all.

I am looking to TIP to tackle some of the harder questions in the sector, essentially around doing things better. This is the time to make progress on one of the UK’s biggest economic problems – its poor productivity. The prime minister has talked of building back better. TIP can show what that looks like and how the whole country can benefit.

Incase you missed it...

  • ICE hosted a roundtable looking at what should be included in the latest iteration of the update to the government’s Transforming Infrastructure Performance (TIP) programme - the publication of Transforming Infrastructure Performance: Roadmap to 2030 - a summary of which can be found here.
  • Andrew Jones MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure (APPGI)