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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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The UK’s relationship with infrastructure needs a reset. Here’s how to do it.

Alex Vaughan, Chief Executive Officer at Costain Group PLC

Alex Vaughan, Chief Executive Officer at Costain Group PLC

4 min read Partner content

UK infrastructure needs reform. The next government must commit to a long-term plan for UK infrastructure that is ratified by parliament and overseen by a dedicated cabinet minister.

In the world of infrastructure, this year has been a good one for Costain Group PLC celebrating anniversaries. Forty years ago, the late Queen officially opened the Thames Barrier, before opening the Channel Tunnel a decade later, both huge success stories in which we played a key part and projects that are still delivering for people today.

Engineering students would struggle to find two better examples of successful UK infrastructure projects. They exemplify the fundamental reasons why building and upgrading infrastructure is important; creating connected, sustainable infrastructure enables people and the planet to thrive.

As a CEO working in this industry for over three decades, I’ve witnessed firsthand how our sector can improve people’s lives. But something has changed. As a nation, we’re finding it more difficult to deliver complex infrastructure in the 21st century than in the 20th.

Yes, we live on a tightly packed island with congested towns and cities, poorly connected rural areas, and a beautiful natural environment, all of which must be navigated with care. And it’s right that we have multiple stakeholders, planning authorities and regulators involved in making decisions that will impact many communities.

But negotiating this complex course is harder than it needs to be. It’s all too easy for ‘essential’ UK infrastructure projects to be changed mid-delivery, mothballed, or cancelled altogether. Our designers and engineers have projects that they’ve worked on for years change at short notice, meaning the end result is never quite what was promised and costs increase.

As a nation, we’re trying to build a complex Lego set without seeing the picture on the front of the box and when the instructions change mid-way through.

The UK is stuck in a quagmire of short-termism. The result is a breeding ground for inefficiency and higher costs.  Cancellations, deferment of schemes, and failure to follow through on commitments are impacting investor confidence as well as the UK’s productivity, skills and innovation.

That’s the bad news. The good news is there are two relatively simple measures that will – almost overnight – go a long way towards making things better.

First, the UK needs to have a new, more structured approach to infrastructure.  Committing to a ten or 20-year plan that delivers the recommendations of the National Infrastructure Commission's (NIC’s) second assessment would offer consistency and continuity of demand and reliable expectations of projects for investors and the supply chain.

This is the single most effective route to improving productivity, speeding up delivery and cutting costs. Every CEO I meet wants to commit to investing in the UK; a long-term plan would give them the consistency and continuity needed.

This should be reinforced by establishing the NIC as an independent, statutory body, driving cross-party consensus over the steps needed to meet the UK’s critical infrastructure requirements and supporting a long-term approach, irrespective of electoral cycles. Requiring parliament to formally vote on its assessments would be the final part of this step.

Second, the next UK Government should create a Minister for Infrastructure. This cabinet-level role would act as a custodian of the long-term infrastructure plan, with full knowledge that many of the infrastructure projects could run well beyond their term in office. Creating this role would go a long way towards ensuring a joined-up approach across government departments, their agencies, the National Infrastructure Commission, regulators and businesses, as well as giving investors much-needed clarity and confidence to invest in UK plc. Many of our peers on the global stage – including France, Canada and Japan – already have similar roles in their governments.

As the supply chain delivering future infrastructure, we are committed to investing in skills and innovation, ensuring a step change in productivity.

The need to upgrade our infrastructure has never been more important; it drives economic growth and productivity, protects us from the threat of climate change and provides for a growing population.

But we need to think about it differently. This is why I have signed the Blueprint for Growth, which outlines 12 recommendations that the future government should implement to effectively boost the UK’s economic growth and productivity.

This country has a proud heritage of delivering engineering and infrastructure marvels; let’s bring that ambition into the 21st century and set the UK up for success for decades to come.

Read the Blueprint for Growth here.

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