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When it comes to success, perception is everything

The cost of “putting infrastructure on the ground” can, according to Infrastructure UK chief executive James Stewart, be up to double the price paid in the rest of Europe.

Similar comments were made in chancellor Alistair Darling’s Budget pack last week about the high cost of UK construction, and we should be in no doubt about the outside world’s perception of our performance.

Is it true? Possibly. Does it matter that the perception exists? Absolutely. We need to do all we can right now to not only boost our efficiency − “deliver more for less” − but also shift the perception toward being highly effective at doing what we do.

Given that we are facing some very serious calls from government to lop billions off budgets and stall any projects that can’t immediately demonstrate value for public spend, perception is everything.

“What is really lacking is politicians with the conviction and passion to make vital projects happen”

Fortunately there are very few in the industry not acutely aware of this fact. And clients also now accept that driving this new lower cost, lower carbon agenda will require them to show true leadership.

They must help their delivery teams by embracing new techniques, processes and technologies required to make a step change.

Yet while Darling and Stewart are right to fret about the cost of UK infrastructure, they could do worse than look beyond the activities on the front line of “putting infrastructure on the ground”.

Specifically they should take a long hard look at the amount of time, money and opportunity being wasted by the UK’s dysfunctional planning system.

It is a system that, in short, is holding up investment in low carbon energy technologies, investment in energy from waste technologies, new transport links, new water infrastructure and in port capacity.

“Without underplaying the need for big change, when it comes to major public projects, political engagement and commitment will be key to efficient delivery.”

Potential chancellors were all this week arguing over who will cut the most from spending plans. Yet across the political spectrum they also all now accept that investment in critical power, waste and transport infrastructure underpins recovery.

So it is ludicrous to hear a client like private waste management giant Viridor talk this week about being prevented from spending £1bn − of its own money − on new energy from waste infrastructure by the planning system and lack of government support.

You can argue all you like about the merits of the Infrastructure Planning Commission versus the Conservatives’ open sourced planning and local engagement. As so many frustrated clients will testify, what is really lacking is politicians as the champions with the conviction and passion to make vital projects happen.

Because, without underplaying the need for big change and new ideas across the supply chain, when it comes to major public projects, political engagement and commitment will be key to efficient delivery.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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