Walking the talk on infrastructure

A Cities and Infrastructure white paper, to be launched in April at an event in parliament, is set to kick start an ongoing process of engagement with key industry, business and political figures on the importance of economic and social infrastructure to the UK. 

Infrastructure Intelligence is collaborating with WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff on a new initiative aimed at identifying infrastructure priorities to allow cities to be competitive in the new global landscape, following the EU referendum.

A series of three industry roundtable events, bringing together key figures from the industry, were held in London, Manchester and Birmingham and the issues raised and conclusions reached will form the basis of a Cities and Infrastructure white paper to be launched in parliament on 27 April 2017.

Attendees at the roundtables were clear that infrastructure was a big agent for revitalising the economy, but that it needed to be defined in a much broader way – hard and soft (education, housing, digital etc). It was crucial to amalgamate the economic aspects of infrastructure with the physical and virtual aspects as these were seen as just as important for growth as is putting in a new high speed rail link. It was also thought that this would make it easier to make the link between infrastructure investment and economic growth. 

However, those attending the roundtables felt that there needs to be more work on communicating the positive aspects with the public. Often the media is full of negative stories about infrastructure but people don’t hear the personal stories of job creation and life enhancement. It was very important to understand what the general public thinks as they should be an informed electorate capable of understanding infrastructure priorities given the right information.

Public support for infrastructure was seen as absolutely critical as it is the key to unlocking and putting pressure on government for a range of different projects and schemes that the industry would be looking to deliver. 

Roundtable attendees also expressed concern about the ongoing political and economic uncertainty in the UK. If the country is perceived as an unattractive area with a lot of uncertainty, it will not attract investment. This may have been exacerbated by Brexit and Trump and knowing what the future holds was seen as crucial as a confidence booster for investors.

How the industry promotes infrastructure was also seen as important. What sort of language is needed (that is currently not being used) that will allow ordinary people to understand the benefits of infrastructure? Does the industry need to highlight the employment opportunities, increased social well-being, better air quality, centres of excellence, more than it does?

“We should be articulating that infrastructure can enable economic, social and environmental benefit, not just growth,” said one attendee at the Manchester roundtable. “But we also need to make the distinction between economic benefit and economic growth. Using the term ‘growth’ can be a bit of a double-edged sword – a general, nebulous term.”

While generally welcoming the moves towards greater devolution, roundtable attendees had a warning. While devolution means that decisions made locally can better reflect the requirements of the area in question, devolved governments don’t necessarily deliver as they are dependent on central government funds to be able to realise projects. More devolution may exacerbate the north-south divide, said to be a concern for the prime minister.

The need to explore alternative funding models was highlighted. Some local authorities are using pension funds to invest in real estate and infrastructure, but it’s not just the pension funds but also the Treasury too. More needs to be done to encourage local government to invest in more projects in this way. Shifting the focus from London was seen as crucial.

Overall, there was a strong view expressed by all those that attended the roundtables in London, Manchester and Birmingham, that the industry needed to be much more effective in its public advocacy work. “We don’t do enough on what the construction industry delivers in terms of its social impact in terms of the projects themselves, the jobs created long-term and the redistribution of wealth – we need to make people much more aware of this,” said one attendee in Birmingham.

Increasing that awareness - amongst the public, politicians and opinion formers - will begin in earnest when the Cities and Infrastructure white paper is launched at parliament in April.

If you would like to contact Andy Walker about this, or any other story, please email awalker@infrastructure-intelligence.com.