Infrastructure will have a crucial role to play in combatting regional inequalities in the UK, says Turner & Townsend’s David Whysall.
Infrastructure stands front and centre of the vision for the future UK and the government’s agenda to ‘level up’ regions and combat deep-rooted inequalities, is set to herald a new era of investment. For those working in the sector, this brings a dual opportunity to boost regional economies whilst also building world-class capability for the industry’s future. To realise this win-win scenario we need to be both an enabler and an agent for change.
Better connectivity sits at the heart of delivering positive economic and social outcomes for communities across the UK. Backed by political figures and the industry alike, the UK2070 Commission has looked long and hard at this and is calling for the government to overturn decades of disproportionate investment between regions. Its final report, released at the end of February, sets out recommendations for a large-scale programme of change including effective devolution, rethinking the housing crisis, and raising the skills levels we need for the future and not just today.
In light of the government’s current agenda and if it responds positively to the commission’s recommendations, we’re likely to see a greatly increased pipeline of infrastructure investment across sectors that include, road, rail, telecoms and utilities. The onus will then be on the infrastructure sector to step up and deliver what is needed, with more pressure to re-define how we set up projects and programmes for success. We must increase productivity, cost-certainty and assure benefits through a new skills base.
Doing so will not just bring benefits for communities in the UK: by approaching major programmes as a “system” and working collaboratively across our sector, we can boost industry capability and open more opportunities at home and abroad.
Central to the commission’s recommendations is creating a transformed public transport network between cities, within cities and beyond cities. Large scale investments such as HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail are critical not just for improved travel between cities, but also as anchor points for local transport between urban areas and isolated communities – thereby unlocking the potential of local economies.
To succeed in delivering a connectivity revolution, the industry needs to be capable of developing schemes at a pace and scale that hasn’t been seen before. We need to upskill and modernise throughout all parts of our industry from how clients build adequate capability through to how supply chains deliver great outcomes. A more integrated, collaborative model is required with smart, joined-up planning, design and delivery management that avoids waste and provides a new sustainable industry model.
Attracting a new generation of diverse talent is also critical. As an agent for change, we must collectively improve infrastructure’s ‘brand’ as an enabler of a future UK and therefore the employer of the brightest minds from the most diverse backgrounds. At a time when the sector faces an acute crisis in traditional skills, we need to present a compelling offer to new cohorts – moving away from the association of construction with ‘low skilled’ labour, to one that inspires new generations of data specialists, digital engineers, logistics experts and asset managers.
The climate crisis also sits at the heart of this proposition. The commission’s report highlights the close relationship between combating environmental change and tackling the inequalities dividing communities, with disadvantaged areas more adversely affected by issues such as fuel poverty, habitat degradation and flooding. We need to move to a position where infrastructure is seen as a key driver for positive change. This requires a cast-iron plan from the government that we can get behind and build the necessary environmental and carbon considerations into projects.
As these issues come to the fore globally, investment in the UK infrastructure sector also opens the door to even bigger prizes. If we can get our connectivity and construction revolution right, not only will we rebalance social and economic equalities close to home, but also build exportable expertise that celebrates the work in our industry on a world stage. In this way, ‘levelling up’ is a golden opportunity to avoid the mistakes of the past, while shaping a brighter future for our industry.
Turner & Townsend looks forward to the publication of the UK2070 Commission’s 100-day report, which is due to be revealed to the House of Lords in June.
David Whysall is managing director of UK infrastructure at Turner & Townsend.