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In challenging times, infrastructure projects must articulate value to society

Date
06 November 2023

The latest ICE Policy and External Affairs Committee considered HS2 and the start-stop approach to infrastructure in the UK.

In challenging times, infrastructure projects must articulate value to society
The ICE Policy and External Affairs Committee met on 12 October.

When planning Policy and External Affairs Committee (PEAC) meetings, the ICE’s policy team allows time for discussing ‘hot topics’ outside the committee’s ongoing work programme.

However, every now and then, events conspire to render even the time allowed for particularly important topics insufficient.

This was the case for the latest PEAC meeting in October. The committee planned to pick up on the issues of diversity and inclusion we discussed in July, as well as reflect on the results of the recent ICE member survey.

Understandably, though, the UK prime minister’s recent cancellation of phase 2 of HS2 took up quite a bit of the agenda.

What lessons can we learn from HS2?

There was full support from the committee for a deeper review of what happened with HS2 and what we can learn from it – something the ICE is likely to start in early 2024.

But there was also caution that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions too early or be too hasty in reacting to the news.

Given the implied criticism over the unpreparedness of the replacement Network North proposals announced alongside the cancellation, it’s important for the ICE not to fall into a similar trap.

‘Symptomatic of a stop-start approach’

The committee was clear that the HS2 decision is symptomatic of a stop-start approach to infrastructure planning and delivery.

This approach stops supply chains and businesses from gearing up properly. It leads to the very inefficiencies and cost issues that create problems in the first place.

But most importantly, it makes our progression towards net zero and achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals much more difficult.

This was a theme picked up in the Second National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA2) published last week, and in the ICE’s response.

The committee also took the view that any review of HS2 should shine a light on the role of its corporate members in the project and whether overspecification and contract pricing had contributed to its problems.

At no point was the committee criticising any organisation involved.

But if the exercise is to be of real value, it will be important to hear the right voices, and self-reflection is part of that approach.

Projects must articulate their value

Overall, there was a collective sense of regret that HS2’s value to society hadn’t been articulated particularly well from the start. This led to misconceptions that were difficult to dispel at times of uncertainty.

There are obvious comparisons with the London Olympics and the Elizabeth Line.

Both came under pressure for cost overruns, particularly at the beginning, but both were ultimately completed – partly due to strong, clear, consistent arguments about their demonstrable outcomes.

The committee will next meet in January 2024, when PEAC hopes to return to looking at how to improve member involvement across ICE’s policy and external affairs activities following the results of the recent ICE member survey.

That is, of course, unless events again conspire otherwise…

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The ICE’s policy work seeks to maximise the use of infrastructure systems to support sustainable outcomes for people and planet.

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  • Jonathan Spruce, director at Fore Consulting