At the end of 2016 the government published its consolidated National Infrastructure and Construction Pipeline, a forward-looking assessment of all the planned investment in infrastructure across the public and private sectors. It contains over 700 projects and programmes with a total value of more than £500bn, of which around £300bn is in physical infrastructure.
Successive governments have been publishing a projected infrastructure pipeline since 2012 – something Costain infrastructure managing director Darren James says is evidence that the issue is seen as crucial to the economic growth of the nation.
“For some time now the government has clearly focused on
the importance of infrastructure,” he says. “One of the key milestones was the production of the original National Infrastructure Plan [in 2010], and since then they have released updated versions of the pipeline.
Good for the country
“The National Infrastructure Plan evolved from an increasingly apolitical view that investing in infrastructure is good for the country, and that targeted investment is really value adding. From the last Labour government through the coalition to the current Conservative administration there has been a very similar approach, with infrastructure investment clearly at the heart of government strategy.”
James says the latest pipeline figures demonstrate the huge volume of investment that needs to be delivered in economic and social infrastructure before 2021, and go some way towards highlighting what the schemes are and where they are geographically located.
And he is confident this is more than just a wish list of potential schemes.
Committed and shovel ready
“If you look at the granularity of the National Infrastructure Plan and the pipeline, there are schemes that are committed, as well as some shovel-ready schemes like Hinkley Point, as well as development schemes like the A303 corridor.
“In the next 12 to 18 months, Hinkley is going to ramp up, and volumes will increase in the roads sector as we get further into the first five years of Highways England’s roads investment,” he adds. “We’re seeing schemes like the M1 smart motorway project coming through that programme, and we recently started work on the A14 between Huntingdon and Cambridge.”
The volume of work identified in the National Infrastructure and Construction Pipeline has raised questions about the preparedness of the industry to deliver what is required with limited resources.
Addressing the skills challenge
But James says the apparent skills shortage should not be a constraint: “If we don’t address the skills challenge, it becomes a constraint; but it doesn’t need to be, as long as we address all the possible opportunities for bringing people into the sector – like dipping into different industries, encouraging people back into work, and setting up apprenticeships. This isn’t a skills crisis; it’s just a skills challenge.”
He cites the example of a Costain initiative to address the lack of people with rail experience needed to fulfil the requirements of the growing re-electrification market: “We met that by cross training people who had standard electrician qualifications to become rail electricians,” he says. “A good quality electrician has some of the basic skills necessary to understand working in the rail electrification environment.”
Cutting construction costs
In its Construction 2025 strategy, published in 2013, the government set the infrastructure challenge of, among other things, reducing construction costs by 33%, lowering greenhouse gas emissions by 50%, and halving the time it takes for projects to go from inception to completion. James believes these targets are still achievable, as long as best practice procurement methods are adopted, and all the relevant parties collaborate.
“As an industry we’ve looked at how we speed up the delivery of schemes, and a lot is to do with the planning process,” he says. “But we now have a different planning process for major projects, and we have already seen projects like the Heysham M6 Link Road and the A160 at Immingham go through much quicker using an early contractor involvement model than historically they would have been delivered.
“The planning process is a very important part of our democratic process and is vital to ensure you get the right scheme, that it is affordable and offers value for money,” he adds.
Faster planning process
“It is an extremely important part of our national governance – but it was taking too long. And all too often, once a project got through planning it would get held up again because the funding or government backing had been withdrawn. Ten years ago it wouldn’t be unusual for a scheme to go through planning then get delayed going through funding.
“But now we have a more effective planning process and more clarity because projects are identified in the pipeline. Which leads to far less time being wasted – either through the planning process or in decision-making.”
One thing that will help to deliver the time and cost savings required is the deployment of more technology-based solutions, says James, whose company acquired technology firm SSL last year. “Technology is going to deliver the lion’s share of the efficiency and value for money,” he says. “Looking ahead, I believe we will see an increasing use of technology to deliver the capacity we need in our infrastructure, and also to rehabilitate a significant amount of our ageing assets.
“There are a lot of technologies and monitoring systems we could be using to get more out of our assets, and to predict their behaviour rather than waiting for them to fail,” James adds. “One of things we have to ensure is that we’re not constrained by only looking at people who are in the [infrastructure] sector for solutions. Some intrusive technology into the sector might be the right answer.”
In association with Costain