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Comment | What are the biggest infrastructure challenges?

Mark Hansford

What is the single biggest challenge faced by infrastructure clients today? And how can the civil engineering profession help overcome it?

Is it funding? That’s always a big one, and the big challenges being faced by the big clients such as Transport for London, as we report this month, suggest that it is a major problem for us all. Part of the answer to that one could be affordability, and bringing schemes in at a lower, more reliable cost.

But as we have also revealed online in the last month, the biggest scheme of all – High Speed 2 (HS2) – is already struggling, with bids coming in substantially over budget. Crossrail, meanwhile, continues to edge close to the limits of its “funding envelope”. Now, from the rail and roads regulator we learn that Highways England’s first two funding periods are running £2.9bn over budget .

Delivery in doubt

Indeed, the delivery of several major government projects including HS2 are now “in doubt”, according to the government’s Infrastructure & Projects Authority. HS2, the Great Western route modernisation, the Lower Thames Crossing and East West Rail have all been given amber delivery confidence ratings, meaning that completion of these projects is in doubt unless “urgent action” is taken.

high speed 1 trains

high speed 1 trains

High Speed rail: funding in doubt

While industry change initiatives such as the ICE’s Project 13 are definitely a good thing, some real solutions are needed.

Another big challenge is technology, and the rapid changes expected to take place in the way we travel and use our infrastructure. Are we equipped to offer the right solutions there?

This month we report on the conclusions of an ICE skills review that downplays the need for engineers to buff up their technology knowledge in the near-term, with its members expressing more concern about technical knowledge and skills.

Technology-led answers

That could well be the right approach, but it does beg the question: who is going to provide the technology-led answers that are sure to be needed?

And then what about climate? As the UK basks in a glorious once-in-a -generation summer it is easy to ignore the root cause of this prolonged weather. But, with more than 200 killed by floods in Japan and, closer to home, hosepipe bans declared in north west England, the impacts of climate change are there for all to see.

Redoubling our efforts to decarbonise our infrastructure must be a high priority, which makes the publication of the long-awaited National Infrastructure Assessment from Sir John Armitt’s National Infrastructure Commission that little bit more disappointing. Yes, it talks of a moratorium on new nuclear and a focus on renewables, but it has little or nothing to say on tidal. And in the month that the government has finally pulled the plug on the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project, it feels like a real opportunity has been missed.

So what do we do? Well, we at New Civil Engineer want to take some decisive action. So we have teamed up with Costain to create the NCE Accelerator as a platform for firms to pitch their solution to the biggest of these issues. The focal point of the Accelerator is a competition that will be run at our Festival of Innovation and Technology, TechFest, in September. We are chiefly looking to provide a stage for the smaller firms with big ideas, as they are the ones who often struggle to get their voices heard.

 But which question most needs answering? We’re not promising miracles but we’re convening a steering group of clients later this month to decide. Watch this space and get ready to help us help our clients to solve one of these very real problems.

  • Mark Hansford is New Civil Engineer’s editor

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