Explaining the case for infrastructure projects
By Keith Mitchell, Chairman
When it was launched last month, the independent “Report into attitudes to infrastructure in Britain”, prepared in partnership between Copper Consultancy and PBA, proved to be a treasure trove of information about how, as built environment professionals, we need to engage earlier and more clearly with the British public in order to improve understanding of the need for, and the benefits of, major infrastructure, and improve the outcomes of the projects we deliver.
In a foreword to the report written by Lord Andrew Adonis, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, he described the research carried out for us by Icaro Consulting as “timely and vital.” For those of us conceiving, planning and delivering major infrastructure projects, there were some valuable headline messages:
- While 87% of people believe that infrastructure should be a priority, only 34% believe that we are good or very good at delivering major infrastructure, supporting the view that infrastructure delivery could be better and faster.
- Only 6% of people believe that infrastructure is planned and delivered as part of a well-coordinated plan for infrastructure. Almost half (49%) feel that there are not enough safeguards to protect communities and the environment, and 58% believe that developers hold too much power and do not listen to the wishes of communities.
- 71% of people feel that more engagement and consultation would help to build confidence in the delivery of future infrastructure, and 49% identify the need for more leadership and technical experts as being an important factor.
The report seems to confirm that, despite strong public support for a programme of improvements to our national infrastructure, there is a gap between the desire for greater investment in major infrastructure and concerns about the effects of major projects, along with a feeling that infrastructure is something that is done to a community, rather than for them.
What is clearly lacking is a strong narrative about what is needed, how it should be part of a well-coordinated plan, or what benefits it will deliver. Many people are looking for technical experts and politicians to demonstrate greater leadership around this, and the majority of people want a greater say in how infrastructure is planned and delivered.
The importance of an evidence-led approach to planning for infrastructure, and meaningful engagement by politicians and professionals in gaining the trust of the public for large-scale infrastructure projects, is a major challenge (and opportunity) for the National Infrastructure Commission as it begins to develop its National Needs Assessment and plans for our national infrastructure over the next few years.
However, these issues also represent a challenge to the industry. Early engagement can provide the opportunity to develop better public understanding about the need for major infrastructure, and a source of helpful feedback to inform the development of better projects which deliver greater value to local communities, the environment and the economy.
Explaining the case for infrastructure projects, engaging the public in developing options, and supporting political decision making are not traditional strengths for infrastructure professionals, but real effort needs to be made to develop those skills and encourage greater involvement. The better we are at communicating, the more likely we are to be able to deliver effective infrastructure for this country that provides commercial and community benefits for years to come.
Please click here for more information and to read the report.
Keith Mitchell, Chairman of Peter Brett Associates, is also a board member of the National Infrastructure Planning Association and Chair of the Transport Trailblazer Apprenticeship Programme.