Society rightly expects our buildings and infrastructure to be planned, designed, constructed, operated and maintained in such a way that presents an extremely low risk of failure, providing assurance to occupiers, users and the public.
But over recent decades, gradually and sometimes imperceptibly, long-established mitigations or lines of defence have weakened. These weaknesses are among us as we undertake our work as engineers day in day out, and yet they can be hiding in plain sight because of their very familiarity.
All of us at ICE were as shocked as the rest of the nation by the fire at Grenfell Tower in June last year. More recently, the catastrophic collapse of a section of the span of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa has thrust the issue of infrastructure failure into the spotlight.
In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, I was commissioned by ICE to lead a panel of industry experts in reviewing the whole-life risks to economic infrastructure, examining the vulnerabilities and risks that could lead to a serious failure.
The review was conducted in two stages. An interim report, published in November 2017, set out our preliminary findings, the primary one being that, while the risk of a major failure of UK infrastructure is relatively low, it is still not low enough.
The final report, published today, draws on those conclusions and considers the changes that have occurred since, such as the release of Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review of building regulations and fire safety, setting out 11 recommendations for ICE, policymakers and others. If implemented correctly, these recommendations should result in still greater confidence in the integrity and safety of our infrastructure.
Lines of defence
The report looks at three critical areas to strengthen the lines of defence against infrastructure failure.
Firstly, there is a need to share lessons from concerns, near misses and failures.
The sector lacks both a sufficiently consistent public safety culture and an efficient approach to learning from incidents and near misses, both in an asset’s construction and operation.
Within this, we need to look at empowering the voice of the professional, enabling them to raise concerns through appropriate channels.
Secondly, we need to find better ways to deliver and ensure competence. This includes a more robust approach to validating Continuing Professional Development (CPD), both for ICE and other professional bodies, and bolstering awareness of the Code for Professional Practice.
Improving asset governance
Thirdly, we must improve the way infrastructure assets are governed.
Some owners – not all – do not know enough about their assets’ conditions, nor take seriously enough the capture and maintenance of data throughout the life of the asset.
Economic pressures, prioritisation of capital cost savings over whole-life value, and narrowly-designed contract incentives can create unintended outcomes that increase risks further.
Asset owners need to have the skills and knowledge to enable them to make the best decisions over the life of that asset, backed up by independent scrutiny and assurance.
The report also considers the best action to take in the rare case an incident does occur. Collaboration and having access to experts to provide immediate help and specialist advice can help understand the incident and reduce the risk of a similar one occurring.
The voice of the engineer
Spanning all of this is the need to fortify the voice of the engineer.
Our infrastructure assets, whether in their construction or operation, comprise of multiple interacting, complex systems that naturally generate risk.
Being able to understand and address those system-wide risks at both a corporate and individual level is vital, with the engineer playing a stronger part in whole-life asset stewardship.
It is for us, as professionally qualified civil engineers, to be ever diligent and always critical so that risks do not stay hidden in plain sight.
Rather, we must ensure they are actively highlighted, managed and mitigated, to better secure the whole-life safety of our existing and future infrastructure.
And it is for ICE to provide assurance to society that we have done so to the best of our professional ability.