We need to raise our ambition on mega-infrastructure projects

Peter Anderson
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We tend to favour tried and tested methods when building big infrastructure projects (Source: Getty)

As commuters, we are only too aware of the increasing strain being put on our roads and railways.

The problem we all face on our crowded journeys to work is one of capacity, and this acutely highlights the need for sustained infrastructure investment across our transport network in the years ahead.

For Londoners at least, Crossrail will help alleviate congestion when it opens in 2018. Although improved journey times have been heralded, it is the additional capacity and reduction in overcrowding across the capital’s transport network which will prove revolutionary.

Yet large-scale infrastructure projects should not stop with Crossrail. The UK has a number of mega projects in the pipeline, from a new runway in the South East, to the Thames Tideway Tunnels and new railways including High Speed 2.

And for good reason too – as the chancellor Philip Hammond reminded us in his party conference speech this week, infrastructure is fundamental to strong, sustainable, long-term economic growth. The statistics speak for themselves. It is estimated that every £1 spent on construction projects generates £2.84 in economic activity, 90 per cent of which stays in the UK.

Take HS2 as an example. This will be an iconic rail infrastructure project which will further free up much needed capacity on the existing network and will dramatically improve journeys between London, the Midlands and the North.

HS2 sign
HS2 will be an iconic railway line (Source: Getty)

It will not only be a catalyst to rebalancing the economy outside of the capital, but it will also open up London to a fresh pool of talent from around the country and make it quicker for those in the capital to reach and do business with companies around the UK.

Further, building HS2 will create thousands of jobs and apprenticeships, and it is these apprentices who will learn the skills which will benefit our country and economy for decades to come.

Read more: Hammond is wrong to assume an infrastructure splurge will boost growth

In the planning of HS2 and other mega-infrastructure projects, it is up to all the key players, including government, contractors and commissioners, to ensure that they are delivered as efficiently as possible.

Above all, this means that innovation and new, ground-breaking technology must sit at the heart of each and every future infrastructure project.

We may be the home of the locomotive and the birthplace of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but the UK infrastructure sector is behind the curve in embracing new ideas and approaches, favouring instead familiar “tried and tested” methods.

It is time for us to embrace technological advances in infrastructure. Not least because it will help address the current skills shortage within the sector and will help attract the brightest and best young talent to work in the industry.

There's much we can learn from France's attitude to infrastructure investment (Source: Getty)

We could do worse than look across the Channel to see how a focus on technology has made the French world-leaders in delivering mega-infrastructure.

While the level of research and development investment in UK infrastructure remains in steady decline, France actively supports business investment in R&D, primarily through the R&D tax credit.

The benefits of this Gallic approach are plain to see. At Balfour Beatty-VINCI, for example, we are an Anglo-French joint venture whose French partner has been involved in the successful delivery of the 302km high speed line between the French towns of Tours and Bordeaux.

This is a project which has created thousands of jobs and boosted the local economies of towns along the route – much as High Speed 1 has in the UK. More than this, though, it is a project which has been delivered on time and ahead of budget, having benefited from a detailed planning cycle with innovation at its core.

This project should act as a blueprint for how mega-infrastructure schemes in the UK should be delivered. Although Brexit may mean Brexit, we shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn from – and collaborate with – our French neighbours to make sure that the UK’s infrastructure needs are firmly met.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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