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Infrastructure blog

5 ways the UK can get better at delivering major infrastructure projects

09 May 2024

A recent panel debate highlighted important lessons the government and profession can learn.

5 ways the UK can get better at delivering major infrastructure projects
The UK does many things well. But too often, parties fail to bring everything together. Image credit: Shutterstock

The cancellation of the northern leg of High Speed 2 (HS2) cast doubt on whether the UK can still deliver major infrastructure projects.

But why did it happen? The ICE has launched a Next Steps programme to find out.

As part of this work, the ICE and the Civil Engineers Club held a panel debate to ask what HS2 and other recent projects can teach us.

The panel included:

  • John Pelton, enterprise programme director, Costain
  • Dr Jennifer Schooling, professor of digital innovation and smart places, Anglia Ruskin University
  • Svetlana Joao, structural engineer, TYPSA, and past ICE President's Future Leader
  • Mark Reynolds, chair and group chief executive, MACE
  • Dr David Prout, pro-vice-chancellor (planning and resources), University of Oxford
  • Jan Bessell, strategic planning adviser, Pinsent Masons LLP and board chair - National Infrastructure Planning Association

The UK is capable – but can do better

The UK does many things well: stable supply chains, social value, and carbon management among them.

Successful projects such as High Speed 1 (HS1), the London 2012 Games, and London’s Crossrail underline that ability.

But too often, parties fail to bring everything together.

Panellists highlighted five ways policy and decision-makers can improve infrastructure delivery in the UK:

1. Get the politics right

Delivering major infrastructure projects takes time and sustained political will.

HS2 shows what happens when political support falls away – often because of short-term thinking.

Successful projects such as HS1 build cross-party political support that lasts over multiple governments.

There were concerns that the prime minister alone had the power to cancel HS2, despite Parliament consistently voting to build it – something highlighted in the ICE’s briefing paper.

Being transparent about costs

Major infrastructure projects are inherently political. This presents a challenge for civil engineers.

For HS2, the number of tunnels was allowed to rise significantly. This helped secure political support in constituencies along the route. But it also drove up costs.

Politicians and civil engineers overseeing projects must be clearer about the true cost of projects and the impact of decisions.

HS2 also coincided with a period of weak economic growth in the UK, worsening the impact of rising costs.

Low growth leaves little room to adjust budgets, making it even harder to deliver long-term projects.

2. Develop strategic plans – and stick to them

Successive UK governments have failed to plan strategically for transport.

Where strategies have been developed, they haven’t been followed.

Countries such as France deliver high-speed rail much more quickly and cheaply than the UK.

In part, this is because long-term strategic plans guide infrastructure investment over several decades.

Integrated infrastructure networks

The UK, particularly England, is poor at planning infrastructure across multiple systems.

Transport is linked to energy, digital, and spatial planning.

Integrated planning would enable the development of infrastructure networks.

These would be more efficient to build and operate and increase the environmental, social and economic benefits for communities and regional cities.

3. Use social value to create a powerful narrative

Railways bring huge benefits. Once built, there are rarely any regrets. But getting them built requires a compelling narrative to gain support.

HS1 had a strong story about connectivity and transforming places along the route – and it helped London secure the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

In contrast, HS2 was sold on speed and pitched at businesses. Panellists discussed how it could've been sold as ‘the people’s railway’ instead.

This would have built a narrative of national unity based on railways’ ability to bring the country closer together.

Putting benefits before costs

Politicians and civil engineers need to be better at using the power of social value to engage the public.

To do this, infrastructure planning should start by setting out the intended outcomes.

This means benefits, not costs, can drive the narrative behind major projects to build public support and discourage politicians from changing their minds.

4. Fix the planning system

The UK’s planning system is too complex and not working as it's meant to.

It was set up to enable early, meaningful public engagement. Projects could then adapt to communities’ concerns and deliver better outcomes.

However, small-scale objections have become a major barrier to infrastructure planning and delivery, even where projects have strong local support.

It pushes up costs and delays communities seeing the benefits of investment.

Finding the right democratic balance

One option proposed to reform the system is a new planning authority, independent from the government.

This could be responsible for approving the government’s vision, set out in the National Infrastructure Strategy, and helping deliver it rapidly.

There is a risk, however, that people feel infrastructure is being imposed on them.

To mitigate that, consultation that understands communities and co-develops solutions is needed alongside measures to speed up planning.

Engineers and project sponsors can also better prepare for opposition.

London’s Tideway sewer, for example, shows how a controversial project can be delivered while addressing strong opposition.

Effective communication and realising direct community benefits have helped bring people along.

5. Focus on outcomes and data to improve delivery

Infrastructure delivery is currently too siloed across government departments. It needs more central coordination.

The Major Projects Leadership Academy has helped strengthen technical skills in public servants. But more could be done to build capacity in planning and procurement.

For example, courses that bring civil servants and the private sector together are being developed.

Reducing over-specification

Starting the planning process with intended outcomes means sponsors can be less prescriptive and allow the supply chain to innovate to find the right solutions.

The UK must also find the right balance between quality and deliverability.

There was praise for Crossrail’s station designs. But also, a reminder that effective infrastructure assets don’t need to be ‘monuments’ that drive up costs and take a long time to deliver.

Incentivising the right behaviours – such as early delivery and collaboration – also works.

The London 2012 Games infrastructure couldn't be a day late, so the project was set up to enable teams to solve problems quickly.

Improving data management

Better data storage and accessibility lowers costs by avoiding duplication.

It enables collaboration, better outcomes and is crucial for asset management.

Some infrastructure being built now must last for centuries. Data needs for the whole asset lifecycle must be planned from the start.

This is already happening. Crossrail was the UK’s first digital railway and HS2 will follow.

But data capture and sharing needs better regulations to standardise it.

We want to hear from you

Through Next Steps programmes, the ICE convenes global public debates to discuss what needs to happen next on key policy issues affecting civil engineering and society.

This programme focuses on decision-making in the planning, procurement, and delivery of HS2, and the people, culture, and context in which those decisions were made.

The briefing paper provides a scene setter for discussing lessons to be learned from HS2’s cancellation.

Read the briefing paper

Watch the panel debate

The ICE wants to hear responses from infrastructure professionals and other experts to the issues set out in the paper.

These will inform an updated briefing paper in the summer.

In particular, we want to hear insights and evidence we may have missed and challenges to these initial findings.

Please contact [email protected] to share your views by 31 May 2024.

  • David McNaught, policy manager at ICE