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Infrastructure blog

Why we should be more positive about our ability to deliver major projects  

18 March 2021

ICE Fellow Jonathan Spruce discusses his experience of giving evidence to the Transport Select Committee on the delivery and appraisal of major transport infrastructure projects

Why we should be more positive about our ability to deliver major projects  
The A14 improvements work in Cambridgeshire is a major projects success story. Image credit: Shutterstock

How many times have we heard or read stories about major infrastructure projects that go over budget and are delivered months and even years late?

The London Olympics, Crossrail and HS2 are just some examples of this. Yet there are many other major projects that are delivered either on or ahead of time, and on budget, the most recent of which is the A14 improvement scheme in Cambridgeshire.

Why major projects do go over time and budget, and how the refreshed Green Book published in November 2020 will address or exacerbate this, is the subject of an inquiry from the House of Commons Transport Committee to which ICE submitted written evidence.

Setting the record straight and highlighting what else we could do were two important aspects that I was only too pleased to talk about in more detail when I appeared before the Committee earlier this week.

Focusing on outcomes through the Green Book

ICE welcomes the new greener Green Book – however, it is designed to appraise projects and programmes based on clear, measurable and quantifiable metrics, and successful outcomes of strategic national objectives such as levelling-up and net zero have not yet been defined.

Achieving net zero remains the single biggest challenge to us in the coming years, so understanding how the Green Book principles are applied to achieve this objective is critical.

Indeed, this was one of the key points that I tried to get across to the committee – very often, there’s an unhealthy focus on capital costs and benefit cost ratios early on in the project development process, driven primarily by the current system.

This loses sight of both the whole-life costs of a project and its overall value, as well as how it achieves national – and local – policy objectives.

To meet these more local objectives, the new Green Book needs to be backed up with greater devolution of decision-making and funding regarding infrastructure in order to improve capability and pace, encouraging more developed evidence bases at regional levels.

The work of sub-national transport bodies has started this process, but there needs to be a consistency of strategic need for infrastructure that runs through national, regional and local programmes.

Simply building a fixed link between Scotland and Northern Ireland, for example, should not be approved unless there is a social, economic and environmental case that works for local communities and the wider economy.

Emphasising the benefits

ICE’s work on closing the gap between project forecasts and outturns has shown that 74% of British adults think politicians should talk to the public more about the benefits of major infrastructure projects, rather than the costs.

HS2 is a good example of how an initial narrative around time savings between Birmingham and London failed to appreciate the wider benefits of such a transformational piece of national infrastructure, such as released capacity on the existing network and the importance of connecting key centres in the Midlands and the North.

Both net zero and levelling-up are key objectives that we need to use when examining major projects. Transport is the largest source of CO2 emissions in the UK, deriving primarily from the use of petrol and diesel in road transport.

In order to deliver major transport projects that are fit for the future, a Net Zero Infrastructure Plan for transitioning the UK’s economic infrastructure systems to a net zero footing must be put in place.

The right tools are in place for better delivery

To come back to my starting point – are we always that poor at delivering major infrastructure projects in this country? I do not think so. Enterprise-based delivery models, such as the Infrastructure Client Group’s Project 13, which ICE has been supporting, provide an example of the type of initiative that could define the way in which major infrastructure projects are delivered in the future.

The Construction Playbook, which was developed in partnership with industry, provides core principles to ensure projects are set up in the right way from the start.

It appears to me that the key to better delivery is to assemble a coherent and committed forward vision programme (like the National Infrastructure Strategy), backed up by a sound evidence base (the National Needs Assessment and regional strategies), and for the industry as a whole to commit to deliver the agreed objectives (particularly net zero) in a collaborative way, learning lessons as we go.

A clear pathway to a sustainable future gives us a means of attracting the skills that we need to deliver our net zero future – skills that may well be sat in primary schools at this time, and that will come from a diverse array of backgrounds, genders, and ethnicity.

Rachel Skinner’s Presidential Address asked us all ‘what are we going to do’ to meet the vision of net zero. That challenge remains, but it’s one that we can rise to, and hopefully by similar work with Government, we can also help to shape.

In case you missed it...

  • Jonathan Spruce, Trustee, Policy & External Affairs at Institution of Civil Engineers