Building an Infrastructure Revolution with Nick Smallwood

By - World Infrastructure Journal

We have set an aspiration to be nothing less than world class” were the words of Nick Smallwood, Chief Executive of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) in a recent Public Policy Projects (PPP) discussion. Speaking directly to Stephen Hammond MP, Chair of the PPP Infrastructure Policy Board, he presented the range of Government plans and strategies which are set to revolutionise UK infrastructure.


Formed in 2016, the IPA sits at the heart of Government, acting as the core expert in infrastructure and major project delivery. Reporting to both the Cabinet Office and Treasury, the IPA works closely with other departments to “drive continuous improvement in the way that Government delivers infrastructure and major projects”. Large-scale developments across the UK are often delivered in collaboration with the private sector and with this in mind the IPA has been supporting industry to ensure that “projects are delivered efficiently and effectively and drive improved performance over time” in order to meet the Government’s aims of creating world-leading infrastructure.


Mr Smallwood explained that the UK is often accused of poorly delivering major projects, but there are in fact many successes across the nation which have gone under the radar. He specifically noted the A14 which recently re-opened after a £1.5bn improvement scheme, completed six months ahead of schedule and under budget. He did however, acknowledge that this is not always the case and the sector still faces significant challenges, especially in long delays and project costs. This hit headlines in recent months with the announcement by Transport for London (TfL) that the large-scale Crossrail project has gone almost £4bn over budget and suffered from delays of over three years.


The Government, however, has an ambitious infrastructure agenda, Mr Smallwood explained, that will “build back better, build back greener, and build back faster”. This was the motto of the recently released National Infrastructure Strategy, created in response to the National Infrastructure Commission’s recommendations and the necessity to rebuild the economy following the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Setting out its long-term vision, this was described as a “once in a generation transformation that will benefit just about every corner of the UK” by addressing the core issues that have held back the sector. Mr Smallwood named a few as the stop-start nature of public investment, insufficient funding for regions outside of London, slow adoption of new technology and project delivery plagued by delays and cost overruns.


The Whitehall task force, Project Speed, has been created specifically to pinpoint these issues, set to review the lifecycle of infrastructure projects and identify improvement areas. Its current projects include reforming environmental regulations to create a simpler framework that best protects the environment, reforming the planning system and transforming the construction sector to make it more productive, competitive, and efficient. Aided by the Construction Playbook, launched on the 8th December 2020 it is hoped that these will accelerate investment into expertise and skills, innovation, and create a “more sustainable construction sector that has the capability to deliver an infrastructure revolution”.


The Three P's

This all comes down to what Mr Smallwood has set out as the three P’s – Principles, People and Performance.


He explained that “poorly developed projects can never be world class” and it is vital to the success of any size development that the basic and fundamental principles are applied and achieved on every project. The success or failure of a project occurs at its very early stages and therefore requires what he calls front-end loading whereby rigorous work and research is completed upfront. This has measurable benefits with developments that spend sufficient time ‘loading’ typically seeing  lower cost and time taken out of schedule. However, the ability and foresight to do this crucially depends on expertise and having access to the right project leadership.


Infrastructure cannot be delivered without people and it is vital that they are equipped with the right tools and capabilities to allow these teams to succeed. Intrinsic to this, is having strong project professionals with expertise in large scale and long-term delivery and this is why the Government is investing heavily in the workforce. They hope to make the industry a more viable and attractive option through Further Education Careers and Apprenticeships and levelling up existing professionals with the new Government Project Academy to ensure that the sector has the skills to make it technologically smart, efficient and world leading.


It is through this long-term modernisation target that we can start to build better, faster, and greener, Mr Smallwood explained. Analysing project performance against indicators such as these must start to be carried out because “what gets measured, gets done” and can step-by-step lead to necessary long-term transformations. This can be seen in the Government’s Transforming Infrastructure Performance (TIP) plan which aims to increase the effectiveness of investment in infrastructure and sets out three key drivers of change: smart construction, digital technology, and sharing innovation and best practice.


Innovative infrastructure

It is clear that delivering radical reform to revolutionise the infrastructure sector cannot be done independently. Instead, all stakeholders must support and work with each other to ensure a wide variety of partners have the capabilities to successfully deliver these projects. Concerns were raised that at a local level, many councils across the country who are already suffering from a lack of funding and resources are unable to bid for, compete and then ultimately complete large-scale infrastructure delivery. Whilst some measures are in place to help local authorities develop skills, new and innovative funding models could help overcome these types of problems. Those suggested, included combining training into capital costs or creating a public-private partnership that uses residential sales to fund vital community infrastructure such as hospitals or schools.


Innovative solutions were a key theme throughout the discussion, centring around the potential of technology to radically transform working practices and project delivery. It was suggested that the UK infrastructure sector fails to use technology that is widespread across other industries; its utilisation could help solve many of the problems that plague developments - “there are technologies out there that are no longer cutting edge, they’re mature and proven but we’re not using them”.


One of which was blockchain and distributed ledger technology which is common across financial industries to help hold data in a secure environment but could significantly level up the way infrastructure projects are run. Specific issues raised were the difficulty in correlating data and outdated paper trails. By using these new technologies to combine data, project delivery could be rapidly made more efficient and cost-effective.


Embracing new technology is also crucial to fighting the climate crisis and deploying more sustainable infrastructure is necessary to meet Government climate targets. The recently announced 2030 deadline of stopping the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles will require a rollout of electric infrastructure across the UK on a level unlike anything seen before, and it was made clear that other sectors are also heading down a more sustainable path. The rail network was specifically named as a critical ingredient in improving the nation’s sustainability and examples of digitised agriculture practices highlighted the progress which has already been made.


Yet with growing uncertainty and concerns over the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the financial aspects of any project are under close scrutiny and make cost-efficiency more important than ever. With infrastructure projects currently receiving about 50% of their funding from the private sector, some raised concerns that financial constraints could lead to a lack of necessary investment. Despite this, the discussion remained optimistic about the future of public-private partnerships and that ambitious infrastructure plans will still attract enough private investment to radically improve the sector.


Ambition was key and Mr Smallwood emphasised clearly that the IPA and Government is committed to creating an infrastructure sector that truly paves the way for innovative and efficient project delivery. With a burgeoning portfolio of projects to come, it remains hopeful that with this clearer strategy and significant investment, they can truly build an infrastructure revolution.


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