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We must ensure that what we build is what we want

When it comes to delivering value for money in civil engineering, the critical but too often overlooked issue is still making sure we have a solid grasp of the client’s needs.

Major projects tend typically to be the biggest offenders. The years - often decades - spent planning, persuading, developing and designing can easily translate into huge amounts of scope creep.

As a result we can risk seeing a robust and fundable scheme move forward to construction as one that no client in their right mind would ever have specified at day one.

And at that point all the partnering, efficient procurement, early contractor involvement and lean construction in the world will not undo the fact that you have actually built the wrong thing and cost the client more than it should have.

Which is why it is heartening to see that so much effort is going in to the so-called “value management” process on the Crossrail project.

Because while we absolutely have to ensure that this massive piece of publicly funded infrastructure is delivered on time and to budget, the most crucial exercise - with the potential biggest wins - must be the decision over exactly what and what not to build.

“The crucial exercise - with the potential biggest wins - must be the decision over exactly what and what not to build”

As Crossrail programme manager Andy Mitchell puts it this week, the critical questions to keep asking clients are “Had you known that what you wanted would cost £10M would you have still wanted it?” and “Now you do know, do you still want it?”.

While no-one wants to start unpicking the Crossrail Act, it would be foolish not to take the opportunity now to ensure that what we build is what we want.

It is an issue and a line of questioning that we will certainly be hearing a great deal more about going forward as the post election public spending squeeze starts to bite. We will have to.

Under the banner of delivering more for less - a subject that we make no apology for talking a great deal about lately - central and local government will be doing all it can to control, reduce and delay as much spending as possible over the next few years.

And we are not just talking about major projects. After all, far more money is spent every week by local authorities up and down the country keeping roads in order, maintaining the public realm and keeping public transport operating. The same questions apply. While it is important to ensure that the schemes being delivered give local authorities best value for every pound spent, the critical issue must be to focus that spend on the services that communities value. Failure to embrace this will be our undoing.

If we cannot consistently demonstrate that the money we spend really delivers what our clients need then we should not be surprised if, no matter how efficiently we spend it, the investment soon gets switched off.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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