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Thu, 21 January 2021

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We must design infrastructure that will benefit us all economically, environmentally and socially

We must design infrastructure that will benefit us all economically, environmentally and socially

"Now is the time to ‘think think think’ before we ‘build build build’ to make sure we’re designing infrastructure that will be of long-term benefit to all of us all economically, environmentally and socially," says Donald Morrison | Credit: PA Images

Donald Morrison, Senior Vice President of People & Places Solutions, Europe | Jacobs

5 min read Partner content

The National Infrastructure Strategy will require grit and determination from industry as well as Government to deliver in a way that serves everyone.

Britain - despite being one of the continent’s richest economies per head - is currently the most unbalanced in Europe (Source: IPPR Report).

Regional disparities run deep within the fabric of our economy, with 40% of the UK’s output produced in London and the South East, and average incomes across the North West, South West, West Midlands and Wales as much as 30% lower than in the capital.

Our industrial strategy has for too long prioritised business prosperity and GDP growth on a macro scale, while the social impacts of investment – inclusive development, community building, connectivity and environmental sustainability – haven’t been given the attention they deserve.

It is for this reason that I welcome a National Infrastructure Strategy committed to “levelling up” the UK’s economy with solid investment and policy promises focused on re-balancing as well as simply re-building.

As industry leaders, we must support Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s equalising promise of boosting opportunities so “those living in all corners of the UK get their fair share of our future prosperity.”

The Strategy’s promise of a National Infrastructure Bank based in the North of England comes as a particularly welcome commitment, as does the introduction of a £4bn Levelling Up Fund.

But perhaps most interestingly, the Treasury is also reviewing its ‘Green Book’, the Government’s way of appraising the value of projects, to ensure it supports the levelling up agenda.

This may seem a dry, technical point – but this set of regulations determines how – and, crucially, where – Government investment is made, and has long been seen to favour London and the South East.

We all have a duty to hold the Government’s feet to the fire on its promises, and undertake our own share of soul searching, to ensure that we play our part and embed more sophisticated measurement that goes beyond delivering a project on time and on budget.

The maxim “only what gets measured, gets managed” was first coined by management consultant Peter Drucker, in the corporate context of evaluating business performance.

The infrastructure industry is dominated by measurement, a symptom of our engineering culture and mindset. But, increasingly, we are not keeping pace with the changing world.

The kind of measurement we prioritise is often narrow, led by public sector procurement practices and the commercial realities of competing in a competitive market.

We need to up our game – and demonstrate the level of vision and ambition needed to meet the social challenges our country faces.

Effectively planned and developed infrastructure has been shown to underpin the achievement of up to 80% of the UN’s sustainable development goals.

It has long been acknowledged that infrastructure is the backbone of a strong and resilient economy, but we believe it can underpin strong, vibrant and inclusive communities, too.

The Government’s Social Value Act of 2012 indicated a promising start on this road to a re-thinking of infrastructure decision-making.

An ‘outcome-based’ model for infrastructure planning, one that has social value embedded at its heart, will be essential in ensuring the UK can build back better in a way that is truly committed to “levelling up” as a unified nation.

The more recent measures outlined by the Cabinet Office this year, stating that from 2021, businesses seeking to win government work must set out how they will also deliver on social value priorities, confirm that the prioritisation of social impact in infrastructure planning is only ascending the government’s agenda.

However, more could be done to make social value still more central in decision-making.

Recognising the challenge here, our partners Simetrica-Jacobs have developed the world’s first set of equity weights, using a Treasury Green Book approved methodology for effectively quantifying social value in infrastructure planning that has already been put to use in partnership with the Department for Transport.

It is this kind of innovative planning, using data and digital modelling to inform decision-making in a way that considers social as well as monetary value, that will enable Government and businesses to work together effectively and deliver the Prime Minister’s “levelling up” agenda via smarter, more objective decisions and, hopefully allow social value to take precedence where traditional “cost vs. benefit” strategies once reigned.

The Government must follow through on its commitments to take into consideration not only how best to invest, but where the structural support will result in most benefit.

An ‘outcome-based’ model for infrastructure planning, one that has social value embedded at its heart, will be essential in ensuring the UK can build back better in a way that is truly committed to “levelling up” as a unified nation.

Now is the time to ‘think think think’ before we ‘build build build’ to make sure we’re designing infrastructure that will be of long-term benefit to all of us all economically, environmentally and socially.

Only then can we finally ensure that communities feel like projects are done for them, not to them.

Jacobs is one of the world’s largest and most diverse providers of full-spectrum technical, professional and construction services for industrial, commercial and government organizations globally.

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