Vision thing: What is government getting wrong with infrastructure planning?

Institution of Civil Engineers flags UK’s “room for improvement” as it seeks civil servants’ first-hand experiences of working on major projects
Work progresses on Old Oak Common Station in west London, which will be HS2's southern-most terminus for the first few yeas of the line's operations

By Jim Dunton

10 Jul 2023


Civil servants with particular experience of infrastructure planning and prioritisation are being asked to feed their insight into new research aimed at improving the way major schemes like HS2 and water-system upgrades are developed and delivered.

The Institution of Civil Engineers’ exercise is a global drive, but the professional body told Civil Service World that it is highly interested in granular information about UK projects from officials with first-hand knowledge.

ICE director of policy Chris Richards said no country got infrastructure “100% perfect” and the current exercise aimed to gather fresh experiences of how things are done best – and establish the extent to which current guidance and UN Sustainable Development Goals are used.

He said upfront planning and prioritisation was a major area of focus – the stage when the question politicians are trying to answer is “what do you want the future to look like?”. However, Richards added that civil servants who saw the impact of poor decisions at the tail end of projects would also have an important contribution to make.

“The insights we’re looking for are effectively people who’ve worked in infrastructure policy, anyone who’s worked in economic policy, and particularly Cabinet Office people – where they’re trying to tie together different strands of policy into an overarching programme of work,” he said.

“It’s also anyone who’s then been involved in procuring construction and anyone who’s been involved in planning approvals for infrastructure.

“A lot of the issues that they will see in their day-to-day work are issues that probably weren’t properly addressed right at the start.”

Richards said civil servants familiar with infrastructure policy would have valuable insight on problem areas that are repeatedly left unaddressed and capability issues in HM Treasury and other departments.

“What we’ve picked up, having spoken to civil servants around the world on this, is frustration that it’s almost accepted that the way we strategically plan and prioritise infrastructure is not perfect, but we can’t be bothered to change or it’s too difficult to change,” he told CSW.

“And it’s that sense of frustration that we’ve picked up from civil servants that there’s no driving force behind that change.”

He said the ICE’s Enabling Better Infrastructure programme, which has been running since 2019, aimed to give politicians a way of effecting change in the way infrastructure is planned for and delivered.

The current consultation – which the institution wants civil servants to feed into – will also check how widely used the EBI guidance is.

Richards (pictured below) said departments of interest would include HM Treasury, the Department for Transport, the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, the Cabinet Office, all other infrastructure-spending departments, and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

He added that the Department for Business and Trade would also be important because of its responsibility for regulators such as Ofwat and Ofgem.

Richards said areas of interest would include HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail, the National Infrastructure Commission’s Rail Needs Assessment for the Midlands and the North, the government’s Integrated Rail Plan, the water industry, and ways flood defences could have been made more strategic.

The UK has ‘much room for improvement’

Richards told CSW that the UK “definitely” has room for improvement in a couple of infrastructure planning areas.

“The first is that there isn’t a very clear national vision about what we’re trying to achieve with infrastructure,” he said.

“You only have to listen to the debate around HS2 and how often that’s changed: first it was about capacity, then it was about speed, then it was about delivering a shiny new thing – that was Andrew Adonis’ aim, to have a positive vision of the future.”

Richards said the other area he views as lacking is the robustness of the National Infrastructure Strategy.

“How do you make sure the strategy is a document that somebody can do something with, rather than just a signal of intent, as it currently is?” he asked.

“What the construction industry was looking for from that strategy was: these are the things that we’re absolutely going to deliver. But what they actually got was: these are the things that we’re thinking about delivering, but we’ll come back to you and consult some more.”

Richards said a 2021 ICE review of the UK’s strategic infrastructure planning system had underscored the lack of a “national vision” and confirmed that while needs-assessment is a “strong” area, strategy isn’t.

“The bit that we particularly thought needed improvement was the link between the strategy and the decisions that are made by regulators and by departments in terms of the projects that they will then go ahead and commission,” he said.

“Because the strategy wasn’t strong enough, they could quite easily not ignore it, but come forward with something that doesn’t necessarily chime that well with the overall needs assessment that was originally produced.”

The ICE’s consultation on infrastructure planning is open until 26 July. More details are available here.

Read the most recent articles written by Jim Dunton - Devolved administration perm secs flag Whitehall crunch points

Share this page