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The Infrastructure review sounds warning over progress on the UK’s next big projects

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The Government is at risk of failing to deliver its National Infrastructure Strategy warns the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) and, despite a backdrop of progress, they were right to raise the warning.

The Infrastructure Progress Review’s conclusion is that slow implementation of recommendations risks the delivery and success of future projects. This means adopting a pragmatic approach to swift delivery.

Policy should never be rushed, but the quicker these issues are tackled, the quicker society and our environment will reap the benefits. If we’re to operate in an environment best suited to future project success we must learn when it’s right to rush and when it is right to hold.

This could be seen in the recent Government’s Electric Vehicle (EV) Infrastructure Strategy which sets out how it plans to ensure the UK is ‘EV-fit’ by 2030, the date after which sales of new petrol and diesel cars and vans will be banned.

“This is a promising package which tries to tackle the big obstacles – the need for a visible network of rapid chargers alongside better local provision for those without driveways or garages to charge up overnight,” said NIC Commissioner Bridget Rosewell, commenting on the Strategy.

Rosewell continued, “Government has now accepted the scale of the challenge and the need to empower local authorities to help ensure chargepoint coverage is accessible and fairly priced for all drivers.

“We’re shifting into drive mode, and we have a decent map for the road ahead, but we now need to keep our foot down and actually deliver the infrastructure needed to give drivers confidence to make the switch.”

Of course, with such a far-reaching strategy, a strong pipeline of Chartered Project Professionals is essential both for today and the years to come if we are to deliver world class projects. But to do this we need to focus on getting the conditions for project success right, here and now.

Chris Beach, Wood  PLC’s Director of Major Projects and Programmes said: “The delivery of major infrastructure projects and programmes is highly complex and requires capable teams to plan and control delivery to minimise the time between the investment decision and the benefits from the new infrastructure being realised…We need to invest more to train and support the skills development of our future project leaders, recognising the value of this investment and do more to help senior representatives of public sector organisations understand the complexities and challenges involved in delivering infrastructure projects.”

The NIC’s review brings home the risks that slow progress – even at this early stage – poses towards the delivery and success of future projects, including in key government areas such as levelling up and net zero. Lack of clarity, policy decisions and funding plans are all highlighted as areas where progress must be sped up.  Failure to do so could risk confidence in the UK’s project delivery capability before these projects even get off the ground.

In addition, research by the Institute for Government highlights that eight of the Government’s 12 levelling up ‘missions’ – targets to be achieved by 2030 across a range of policy areas from crime to health to housing  – need to be recalibrated if they are to deliver on the government’s promises to level up the UK.

Despite the above, the NIC review  highlights and praises areas of delivery where progress has been notable, for instance, expansion of gigabit-capable broadband and renewable energy generation. Lessons from these successes must be learned and shared across other projects and maybe even at the Despatch Box, as it’s already noted that ‘gaps are opening up between aspiration and execution’. 

The fiscal environment today means every penny must return value and, as we close in on targets and the need for delivery, it’s inevitable that the constraints of time, quality and cost – through which planned change must be delivered – will start to flex their muscles again, determining project success in the eyes of the taxpayer.  

While the NIC’s review recognises the challenges of delivering a strategy during such widespread global volatility and rising living costs, it’s correct to point out that it will ‘not become any easier or cheaper to solve by delaying action’.

Since the NIC’s review, the Government has launched its Energy Security Strategy which includes a new government body, Great British Nuclear, which will be set up immediately to bring forward new projects. This could mean delivering up to eight reactors, equivalent to one reactor a year instead of one a decade.

However, the NIC review called out the Government’s own target for as many homes as possible to be EPC C rated by 2035, an initiative that could cut overall demand and save households money. This is because the number of energy efficiency installations will need to increase significantly to keep it on track.

Progress has been made, but if we’re to truly benefit from the Government’s rising investment in future infrastructure to deliver vital programmes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, become more resilient to climate change and to ensure economic opportunity is spread more evenly across the country – all of which will be delivered through projects – then we must have the right conditions for project success.

You can read the Infrastructure Progress Review 2022 here


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