Industry demands real action on infrastructure not slogans

Boris Johnson may have said "build, build, build", but construction leaders want "action, action, action".him to

It’s not often that the prime minister of the day stands in front of a podium emblazoned with one of the key activities of your industry sector, but that’s what Boris Johnson did on Tuesday this week in the West Midlands as he pledged to “Build, Build, Build” Britain out of the Covid-19 crisis by revitalising the economy through multibillion-pound infrastructure investment.

On the whole, the construction industry was pretty pleased by Boris Johnson’s speech in Dudley. However, as many industry leaders have been keen to point out, words are cheap but what the industry really needs is action and real projects with real outcomes and real work at the end of it.

David Barwell, AECOM’s chief executive officer, UK and Ireland, said: “We of course welcome the prime minister’s commitment to ‘build, build, build’ but what we now need to see is ‘action, action, action’. During the prime minister’s tenure there has been much talk of an ‘infrastructure revolution’ and the ‘levelling up’ agenda, I hope that today marks the start of a process which will turn these slogans into a reality.”

Association for Consultancy and Engineering chief executive, Hannah Vickers, said: “Overall, we welcome the ambition, but it needs to quickly translate into tangible action on the ground. The primary challenge we’re facing as an industry is less about “build, build, build” and more about “deliver, deliver, deliver” and while we may wish to speed up programmes and projects, this won’t be possible without business confidence. 

“Communication of concrete proposals gives businesses in our sector the assurances to retrain and reskill workforces accordingly and while the IPA’s recent procurement pipeline was a positive step in the right direction, it now needs monthly updates by government departments to provide additional clarity.”

Simon Rawlinson, head of strategic research at Arcadis, said: “Sure, the speech was short on detail and we still await the detail of programmes outside of the scope of the IPA's procurement pipeline.  Nevertheless, the watchwords 'better, greener, faster' are a declaration of intent with respect to the government's change agenda, its sustainability priorities and raised expectations for our role in delivery.”

"To attract private investment to build on the public funding and to ensure we have the skilled workforce needed to deliver, building schemes need to be set within a longer term strategy that gives clarity on the future direction of government policy."
Sir John Armit, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission

John Armitt, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, said: “Building back better, greener and faster are welcome ambitions and it is critical that we take immediate steps to secure jobs and build confidence across supply chains. To attract private investment to build on the public funding and to ensure we have the skilled workforce needed to deliver, building schemes need to be set within a longer term strategy that gives clarity on the future direction of government policy.”

Mathew Riley, Ramboll UK’s managing director, highlighted the need for changes to planning and project procurement as vital and long overdue if the government was to deliver on its infrastructure aims. “Reform of the planning and procurement system in the UK is long overdue and something that the industry has been calling for some time,” he said. “It has long severely hampered the construction sector’s ability to drive activity, innovate and meet its full potential.  

“The parameters upon which procurement contracts are awarded is still overwhelmingly focused on price rather than encouraging innovation or efficiency. Public procurement processes are particularly problematic, as the opportunity to put forward any added value is extremely limited/non-existent. If the government want to encourage change then they must provide a clear and immediate strategy, or businesses are unlikely to put investment behind developing better engineering solutions,” said Riley.

Richard Robinson, Atkins UK & Europe CEO, echoed Riley’s planning comments. “It’s very encouraging to see that infrastructure investment is at the heart of the government’s Covid recovery plan, and I’m particularly pleased that the prime minster recognises that interventions are needed to speed up the planning and procurement process to address unnecessary delays,” he said. “For me, this will be critical in the coming months and I look forward to supporting this work which will give us much needed certainty across the sector,” Robinson said.

Meanwhile, the CBI voiced concerns about whether firms could wait for the government’s spending to make a difference. Its director general Carolyn Fairbairn said: “The reality is that longer-term plans will falter without continued help for firms still in desperate difficulty. Government intervention so far has saved countless jobs, yet anxious months for many still lie ahead. The focus on rescuing viable firms cannot slip while the UK looks to recovery, or earlier efforts could be wasted.”

The rail industry also wanted to see more specifics from the PM. Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Railway Industry Association, said: “Whilst the speech set the right tone, railway suppliers will be disappointed by the lack of specific new rail projects the government plans to speed up. Suppliers need to see specific schemes with delivery timelines so they can plan and build their project teams, delivering a world-class rail network which benefits not just rail but UK plc more widely, its economy and long-term connectivity.”

While the construction sector is understandably pleased by the prime minister’s focus on infrastructure investment as being key to economic recovery, his government will need to deliver on its rhetoric if it is to build business confidence and help the industry recover from the Covid crisis.

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