Transport infrastructure delivery needs a watertight solution

The UK must find watertight solutions to ensure infrastructure in all its forms can be delivered more efficiently and reliably, says Mace’s Sean Gray.

Sean Gray, head of transportation at Mace.

The UK infrastructure sector can make a positive contribution to the nation’s future wellbeing, with a pipeline worth more than £600bn and growing. 

However, if we are to reap the rewards of this investment, we must tackle the 80% of infrastructure projects currently being delivered late and overbudget. Mace’s recent report found these unexpected costs and delays could soon equate to approximately £600 a year for every UK taxpayer.    

It is striking that even with rising costs, no-one seems to be connecting infrastructure delivery and charges passed onto taxpayers - perhaps symptomatic of the way in which large projects are handled. With many projects featuring a procession of individual contractors and consultants, a short-term approach can often prevail. This can lead the public to perceive each project as standalone rather than part of a programme of activity.   

To improve the delivery of transport infrastructure, procurement should prioritise aligning team behaviours and incentivising collaboration, rather than people and businesses individually. We need to encourage teams to come together and find long-term solutions for delivering infrastructure and learnings could be taken from the water sector, which has developed a successful model in its recurring asset management period (AMP).

Since merging capital and operating budgets following the introduction of totex (total expenditure), water companies have had to consider how they use their whole budget and deliver services more effectively. While this model is fundamentally different to rail or highways, there is much to take from best practice in water infrastructure. 

Water companies tend to think about estates as assets, viewed simply as infrastructure and non-infrastructure; clean or dirty. Pipes in the ground are core infrastructure, providing opportunity for high volume, repeatable activity. Treatment processes are non-infrastructure, requiring more standardisation and development. Water companies are motivated to innovate and invest upfront, so they can maintain a positive financial position. The sector has succeeded in streamlining its approaches, demonstrated by a willingness to use off-site and new methods of construction.  

There are three key priorities for delivering complex transport infrastructure:     

  1. Maintain a production-focussed mindset. Car and train manufacturers think in terms of rate and volume of units. Road, railway and property developers should be thinking this way too. In 2017, Mace invested £9m in a pioneering jump factory in order to bring factory levels of productivity to a building site and build a storey of a residential tower every week. Adopting this approach could offer safer, faster and more predictable delivery, based on well-rehearsed sequences. 
  2. Develop a collaborative model. Alliancing promotes a strong culture of teamwork, sharing common goals keeping priorities in clear view, such as ensuring site safety and a customer first approach.
  3. Deliver on your promises. Trust is built by working on-time and within budget. The London 2012 Olympics Legacy or the redevelopment of Birmingham New Street station are strong examples of well-delivered programmes achieving a real, lasting impact.   

It boils down to a willingness to adapt and change and the test for infrastructure owners comes through self-reflection - are we being honest about our capacity and capabilities?’   

The UK has significant advantages in delivering infrastructure, including an experienced workforce and high-quality private sector leadership. However, transformative infrastructure often takes too long to deliver, leaving us vulnerable to technological and social changes. Britain must find watertight solutions to ensure infrastructure – be it transport, energy, housing or other – can be delivered more efficiently and reliably.

Sean Gray is head of transportation for Mace.

If you would like to contact Rob O’Connor about this, or any other story, please email roconnor@infrastructure-intelligence.com.