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Do the regions possess the project skills to deliver the NIS?

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Map Of UK, London Focus

The government hailed it as the start of an infrastructure revolution to help the UK bounce back from coronavirus and tackle climate change. The National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS), announced in November 2020, outlines plans to radically improve the quality of UK infrastructure by upping spending in areas such as strategic roads and the environment.

The government also wants much of the cash to be re-directed to the regions as part of its ‘levelling up’ agenda. This includes a £4bn levelling-up fund to invest in local infrastructure in England and new green growth clusters in traditional industrial areas.

“All but one of the major new capital projects in the next few years will be outside the south-east,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The NIS presents a huge opportunity for regional economies. But are there enough local skills to help fulfil it?

What the numbers tell us

According to APM’s Golden Thread research, there are 767,000 project professional jobs in London and the south-east compared with 189,000 in the north-east and 260,000 in the north-west.

In 2017, a report from EY stated that large public-sector projects ran the risk of rising costs and delays unless regional commercial, financial and project management skills gaps were addressed.

Joe Stringer, partner for EY Government and Public Sector, said: “Decision-makers in most regions can’t assume the skills are there.”

So, how big an issue is this? Could the revolution be crushed before it starts?

“From the Golden Thread, we found that there was an even amount of project management happening everywhere,” says David Thomson, head of external affairs at APM. “It was a bit biased to the south-east because of the big London projects. But if the government is serious about levelling up, it has to be matched with the relative skill sets. You can’t expect it to be directed by command and control in London. If you look at Local Enterprise Partnerships, for example, most of them don’t have project management skills.”

Build it and they will come

Tim Goodman, managing director of Warminster-based South West Project Management, says there are clear skill gaps in his region.

“Most of the major project management consultancies are based in Bristol, but in other cities such as Bath the resource is limited. On some projects, I’ve brought commercial teams in from London because the quality isn’t here. There will be a shortage of project professionals to meet government aims,” he warns.

Glenn Keelan, principal consultant at Salisbury-based Wessex Advisory, is more confident.

“APM has a record high number of members at 33,000. It is not beyond the wit or will of the profession to accommodate a more regional focus,” he says. “Project management is mobile. I’ve worked with people from all over the UK on London projects. Regional projects will be a draw for south-east-based project professionals. Build it and they will come!”

This applies both physically and remotely it seems.

“Because of the pandemic we know that project teams can work remarkably effectively from home using digital communications,” says Simon Rawlinson, head of research at Arcadis, one of the founding partners of the Northern Power Partnership. “You can deploy teams much more flexibly. Our 500-strong team for the HS2 project in the Midlands is located in the UK, France, India and the Philippines.”

Another potential positive from the pandemic is professional workers moving out of London for a better work-life balance.

“Projects being developed in the regions will provide a further opportunity to relocate,” says Rawlinson. “At the same time, it means northern project professionals no longer having to do extraordinarily long commutes to projects in the south. This could be a tipping point in work location, with a more equitable distribution of skills and resources.”

This is an important point. This is not a simple case of the south coming to the rescue of northern projects. There is a high-quality skill base already present in the regions – the industry just needs more.

Skills focused

Arcadis is currently running graduate and apprenticeship schemes on its HS2 project and analysing skill shortages in the north. “Infrastructure investments need to be accompanied by spending on education and skills,” says Rawlinson.

This ambition will be helped in 2021 when the government formally launches its skills academy for project management.

“If you are going to have a sustained programme of major projects then you need to ensure it is not going to fall over,” says Thomson. “That means increasing capacity and capability of existing skills but also being better at others, such as data analytics.”

It also means better utilising the existing project management skills in each region. “In Cambridge you’re looking at hi-tech and pharmaceuticals and in the south-west it is defence,” he says. “Under the surface you are getting specialisation.”

In the end it comes down to carefully planning each project – what skill resource is needed and how that will be fulfilled. “The regional transition won’t be instantaneous. You don’t just open the box and inflate one ready-made project professional!” says Keelan. “Will the regional projects mobilise as quickly as a major station build in London? Probably not. But ultimately will they be able to deliver what they need? Yes, through relocation, refocusing on local skills and remote working.”

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