Winning the argument for infrastructure investment

A range of major infrastructure schemes are in the pipeline.

The government must not waiver from planned infrastructure delivery as it is key to driving economic and social wealth and building sustainable skills for domestic demand and export, says Richard Robinson.

After what can only be described as a rollercoaster year, political change has become the new norm. However, one thing is certain and that is that all arguments for investment in infrastructure make sense. That was the overarching message in this year’s CBI/AECOM infrastructure survey, published at the end of October, that measures the mood of business leaders, and shows where their pain points lie; both geographically and by topic, from road, rail and aviation to energy and connectivity. 

Over the past few years much-needed momentum for infrastructure has gathered pace. This in turn has given confidence to the market and shown that the UK is open for business. There are a range of major schemes in the UK national infrastructure pipeline. Not only the headline projects such as the third runway at Heathrow Airport, HS2, Crossrail 2 and the Northern Powerhouse programme, but also local projects with social value, be that regional highway projects to fill the pot holes or build schools, hospitals and the fundamental demand for housing. The fundamentals behind these projects still need to be set out in strategies around housing reform and the focus on cities, as they are of upmost importance to driving economic and social wealth. 

Despite the country’s strong pipeline of projects, the report says clearly that business lacks confidence in the UK’s ability to deliver, especially around housing and particularly in London. To restore this confidence, it is important that the government does not waiver from planned infrastructure delivery. Underlining the need for infrastructure investment and planning is the necessity to build sustainable skills for domestic demand and export. Perceptions of the planning system could be part of the problem. While there is business support for planning reforms such as the National Planning Policy Framework, the link between local planning decisions and national priorities is hazy.

A more integrated approach to regional growth that recognises the interdependent relationship between the UK’s major cities and their regions is needed. With around one million people commuting into and out of London every day, strong economic links between industrial and learning ‘clusters’ both within and beyond the capital are essential. Jobs will be created in one area and homes needed in different and often distant districts. Clearly region-wide collaboration will help address the housing shortfall. 

Progress made in Manchester, Birmingham and other major cities illustrates how collaboration with neighbours that share economic, social, cultural and functional relationships can drive growth. A refreshed system of governance is needed, in which government, local authorities, developers, communities and infrastructure providers work closely together. A move towards devolving and integrating transport and planning powers in England will help ensure local needs are met, with city mayors integral to decision-making. 

Another way to think differently about cities meeting the multiple challenges to infrastructure, planning, transport and housing is through transport-oriented developments.  Housing built in line with infrastructure investment and development is crucial to boosting the economy. Central to this will be growing the scale of the professional business services sector to create more sustainable and high value jobs to help the local economy to grow and increase exporting. This would also help to attract people to areas, making them places people want to live.

To deliver the trajectory for growth that is so desperately needed, it is a given that we need to fill the growing skills gap. This remains a key issue that extends beyond the Brexit negotiations. It can be argued that it is positive reflection on the growth of the industry which, if managed correctly, will bring exciting new talent to deliver the multitude of schemes. 

That is why it is so important that the government, industry and schools work together to successfully tap into the engineers of the future. This is not just to deliver projects at home, but also oversees. An outward facing industry with domestic social and economic infrastructure will be the key to economic success. 

Richard Robinson is chief executive of civil infrastructure, Europe, Middle East, India and Africa at AECOM.