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3 ways the UK government can improve infrastructure decision making

15 December 2022

ICE Trustee Jonathan Spruce outlines the key messages he delivered to the Lords Built Environment Committee. 

3 ways the UK government can improve infrastructure decision making
The evidence focused on key points that can make the biggest difference in how the government makes decisions.

Monitoring and influencing infrastructure policymaking and implementation in central government has been a key activity of ICE’s Policy and External Affairs Committee over recent years.

It was timely, then, that I was able to give verbal evidence earlier this week on behalf of the ICE to the House of Lords Built Environment Committee on their inquiry into this area.

The committee’s key areas of interest are:

  • Working relations between the relevant decision-making bodies (National Infrastructure Commission, Infrastructure and Projects Authority, HM Treasury and Cabinet Office)
  • How infrastructure decisions are made, and
  • The supervision of infrastructure project implementation.

The ICE’s involvement in this policy area is widespread.

When asked to give evidence, our challenge was focusing on a few key points that will make the biggest difference in how the government makes decisions.

All this while bearing in mind the importance of our infrastructure being prepared for climate change, and remembering that the transition to net zero by 2050 is a challenge of unprecedented complexity and scale.

For these reasons, our evidence focused on:

1. The importance of the National Infrastructure Commission

In terms of decision making, I was keen to stress the ICE’s position of giving statutory underpinning to the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC).

This means setting up the NIC formally under an Act of Parliament, providing both NIC and the wider infrastructure community with greater certainty on the UK’s approach to strategic infrastructure planning.

As a starting point, giving statutory underpinning to the publication of a National Infrastructure Strategy every five years is a practical first step.

This would provide the NIC with certainty on how frequently it produces its assessments (at present, this is listed as ‘once every Parliament’).

It would give transparency to the construction industry on the cycle of updates, and also, provide a clear link to the production of an overarching National Policy Statement for infrastructure.

This would ensure strategy drives planning and development, including providing guidance for regulators for price reviews.

In the long term, this certainty would mean projects can be expedited more quickly, at a lower cost.

2. Practices and processes that industry is already using to improve how we deliver infrastructure

A recurring theme of the evidence presented was how we can deliver infrastructure more effectively.

Clearly, the benefits of pipeline certainty and programmes, rather than individual projects, enable better productivity, efficiency and value for money.

This can be addressed by central government through some of the reforms suggested above as well as a stronger role for sub-national authorities, with enhanced devolution of funding and powers.

But once a project reaches a detailed stage, we need to look at collaboration between government and industry.

I used the examples of the Construction Playbook and Project 13 as ways the industry is already using new approaches to procure and deliver major projects and programmes.

Project 13 in particular encourages value-based incentive mechanisms that focus on outcomes and the performance of infrastructure assets over the entirety of their lifecycle.

It’s also important to recognise that infrastructure delivery is not solely a problem in the UK, and that ICE’s wider international reach can bring forward examples from elsewhere on how these problems can be tackled.

In fact, we discussed this topic with global infrastructure leaders only last month.

3. What we need from government

It’s not all about cost

Although ICE welcomed HM Treasury’s refresh of the Green Book in 2020, I pointed out that the Green Book is designed to appraise projects and programmes based on clear, measurable and quantifiable metrics.

In key policy areas, such as net zero and levelling up, there is a need for more detailed definitions and clarity on hard targets for infrastructure to help deliver those outcomes.

More weight should also be attached to the whole-life benefits of projects and programmes, as opposed to fixating on achieving lowest capital cost in delivery – a point that I stressed to the House of Commons Transport Committee in a previous evidence session.

Crucially, we need to consider infrastructure as an investment, not a cost – ICE polling suggests a majority of the public (68%) support this view.

Progress has been made, but we need commitment

In essence, major project construction are complicated undertakings, spanning a development time of years or decades.

They have unique requirements, bringing together multiple stakeholders and a disparate workforce that spans the entire supply chain.

It’s important that major infrastructure projects are not considered in isolation – our infrastructure operates on a systems-wide basis after all.

The majority of projects will need to be integrated into existing networks and services, but the dominant leadership and delivery model for infrastructure projects has not evolved to reflect these changes.

As an industry, we are addressing this, but the onus now falls on central government to keep pace with and match our evolving methods to ensure that it makes the right strategic decisions and commits to delivering them.

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  • Jonathan Spruce, director at Fore Consulting