Three things that will keep infrastructure high on the political agenda

Nick Roberts, Atkins

Selling the benefits of how infrastructure enriches society, delivering what we promise and exporting skills should be top of the to do list for industry, says Atkins boss Nick Roberts.

A week ago many of us were pondering the implications that a change of government would have for our industry. We were keeping our fingers crossed that decision making would not grind to a halt and that infrastructure would not be used as a political pawn during coalition negotiations.

"Business cases are heavily weighted towards the financial return on investment but it is the social benefits that will win the hearts and minds of the public."

If the Pulse survey published in Infrastructure Intelligence on 6 May reflects the views of our industry, we’ve got what we wanted. Respondents said a Conservative government would be best for infrastructure, and that means we have the Tory manifesto and the National Infrastructure Plan to provide some certainty for the future. Furthermore, there are now no coalition partners to accommodate which in theory makes the running of the country a more straight forward task.

However this is where the notion of an easy ride ends. The government’s majority is slim and they will be well aware of the difficulties that rebels within their own party could cause. Then we have the unfamiliar opposition. Although they have fewer than 50 per cent of votes in the House of Commons, they still represent a large proportion of the country, particularly in Scotland, and will have a loud voice.

We have issues such as Europe, devolution and the ongoing budget deficit on the table which could make the UK unrecognisable in five years’ time and absorb a lot of people’s time and energy from other matters. From an infrastructure perspective there are huge decisions to make around airport capacity, high speed rail, energy and the digital economy which will affect the country for generations to come, and it will need strong leadership and political will to see these through.

There are many individuals and organisations championing their causes and stating their priorities for the government. Of course there is merit in this, but I wanted to highlight some of the things I believe we need to focus on ourselves.

1.     Politicians broadly appreciate the value of infrastructure, however, it still feels as though members of the public often perceive it as a burden rather than something that enriches their lives. I believe part of the reason for this is the business case. It is heavily weighted towards the financial return on investment, which is of course important, but it is the social benefits that will win the hearts and minds of the public. We need to think broadly and holistically about infrastructure, which will ultimately gain more support and enable better decisions to be made.

2.     It may sound obvious, but having sold the benefits of what we do, we need to deliver on our promises. Confidence that we can deliver should not be underestimated, and if projects go over time or over budget, or if the quality of what is delivered isn’t up to scratch it provides an easy reason to divert funding elsewhere. If we get it right, not only can it help bring in more and different models of investment, it will help money go further and enable the UK population to benefit from investments in new and existing infrastructure.

3.     The UK has a history of moving the world forward through infrastructure and engineering. Maintaining this position is both good for business and good for Britain. It means delivering projects well at home, upskilling our people and exporting our expertise overseas. We also have the chance to shape the future of our industry as we move more and more into the digital era.

To end on another saying – actions speak louder than words – delivering on these three points should make sure we’re heard.  

Nick Roberts is chief executive officer at Atkins with responsibility for the UK and Europe.