Striking a balance between local and national infrastructure planning

Are top tier national infrastructure projects the best solution for regional economies? There’s a real need to plan better and balance national infrastructure pipelines with regional infrastructure needs, writes Natasha Levanti.

The south west of England, while famed for the engineering prowess of Brunel, is of late known for a plethora of transportation challenges that serve to fracture the region, including but not limited to, electrification, single carriageways, limited rail connectivity and aviation connectivity. 

Yet, as the South West remains the fastest growing region after London for the last six years, there is much potential for new infrastructure projects and developments going forward.

While the costs of Hinkley Point C have surpassed the initial estimate, the project is adhering to its initial timeline, with the first pouring of concrete for the reactor galleries at the end of March. Thus far there are approximately 1,600 individuals working on the site and at the peak of its construction the site alone is estimated to employ 5,600 people. This does not include the increased supply chain demands within the local area that will be created during the construction and the lifetime asset management of the project once completed, estimated to bring the jobs total to over 26,000. 

The project has committed to 500 apprentices over the next six years as well as £15m invested in the education, skills and employment of individuals from Somerset. This places the project as a skills development opportunity for local residents, through fostering skills that can then be used on other projects in the South West.

Greg Clark, secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, for the South West this is an opportunity for a “long overdue wave of investment… providing a huge opportunity to the economy … through the supply chain of firms, big or small, that will benefit from the investment.”

Yet other infrastructure projects within the area have been quick to point out that these large top tier infrastructure projects placed in regions needing an economic influx may hamper the small to medium scale regional projects, which are already facing the additional challenge of impending Brexit.

Robert Sinclair, chief executive of Bristol Airport, said: “The number of substantial infrastructure projects planned over the next ten years will have an effect on our airport’s development plans. Hinkley Point C is sucking out skills and not just in the construction and infrastructure area but also other skills as well. They need hundreds of security guards, bus drivers, steel welders, concrete pourers and all sorts of people. That feeds through into shortage of people but also into costs and we are directly exposed to that especially in construction where we’ve seen costs running at 5%+. And, Brexit is undoubtedly going to compound the problem even further with access to skilled labour.”

This begs the question, for regional growth are large scale national top tier infrastructure projects the best way to spur the economy? 

If Sinclair is correct in the knock-on effect of this top tier asset on lower tier assets that improve the lives of local residents in a more immediate way, even if only temporarily, will such a top tier project truly benefit the region if people leave due to further electrification delays, hazardous carriageways, lack of broadband or limited aviation.

With Brexit set to hit the south west coast, as well as the rest of the United Kingdom, in 2019 and the skills gap in our industry ever looming, we need to ensure that within forward infrastructure planning we strike a balance between local and national needs. 

While large scale top tier projects are able to foster skills with intensity, we must ensure that these skills are also deployed within lower tier projects so long awaited local projects are not sacrificed. 

Hinkley Point C’s potential slowdown due to cost and skills of other regional projects, from broadband to electrification, effective carriageways and aviation, may be a much needed reminder that we need to plan, secure and deliver on both national and regional infrastructure pipelines - as complementary parts of the greater whole. 

For the south west, while Hinkley Point C may currently be the most notorious, it is important not to let one top tier project cast the rest of the region’s projects into shadow.