Heathrow, Hinkley and High Speed 2…these are not just huge projects that are now moving forward – they are three interventions that will shape our transport and energy networks for decades.
If we put the H’s alongside the recent announcement to formalise the role of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) – and appoint outgoing ICE President Sir John Armitt as its vice chair – we are inching towards a more stable, strategic approach to developing the UK’s infrastructure.
As engineers we can (and always will) argue about the merits of individual projects.
The views of New Civil Engineer’s editor about Hinkley are well known and it is right to have this kind of intellectual debate, because it is part of what makes engineering a profession and not just a job.
But at the strategic level, we really must seize this moment and come together to support a shared set of goals for what we need to deliver to allow the UK to flourish.
After all, it is what we’ve been asking of government for decades. We now have a tantalising glimpse of a future, free from policy on the hoof and stop-start programmes.
These are the conditions which have encouraged what Mark Farmer in his recent Modernise or Die report for the Construction Leadership Council describes as a survivalist mode in our industry, with the low levels of investment, innovation and productivity growth that flow from that stance.
We need to get behind Armitt and support his work with the NIC. And we aren’t starting from scratch.
On 19 October he was at ICE HQ to launch the National Needs Assessment, the ICE-led project to set out a 30 year view of our infrastructure requirements and how they can be met.
Britain in 2050
At the heart of the work is modelling from the University of Oxford. This describes a Britain in 2050 with a population of 75M, energy demand up 50%, a major shift to electrification of transport and heat, a need for 300,000 new homes per annum – the list goes on.
And this is not all tomorrow’s problem – disruption from flooding already costs the UK economy £1bn a year and a quarter of peak hour trains into London are already over capacity.
The NNA proposes a focus on an energy-transport-digital nexus.
The last of this triumvirate is particularly important. A 30 year strategy is about outcomes, not just delivering assets.
Technology is opening up new options for managing capacity and providing services that will remove the need for some projects and make us think about others in different ways.
Not all of the scenarios in the NNA will turn out to be correct and we’ll continue to be a noisy and disputatious bunch.
But it does provide us with framework for thinking about our future and the contribution we make to the country post-Brexit .
The NIC has already said it will use the NNA as a blueprint for developing its “official” needs assessment over the next 18 months.
Let’s make sure we all take part in that conversation. Let’s also start thinking now about how we as an industry are going to organise and invest to deliver the nation’s needs.
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