MPs call for culture change in delivery of major UK infrastructure projects

Out-Law News | 05 Aug 2020 | 8:47 am | 3 min. read

A House of Commons committee has said that the UK’s infrastructure strategy needs to focus on better local coordination, performance tracking and transparency over delivery in order to achieve government aims.

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee examined the way the UK government should run large public infrastructure projects, with a focus on economic and 'levelling up' goals.

In its report the committee said government needed to publish its promised infrastructure strategy as soon as possible, while defining what it means by its stated agenda of 'levelling up'.

It said local consultation should take place early in a project, before decision making is finalised, and that any project which fails to prove it has carried out adequate consultation should not receive government funding.

Owen Robbie_November 2019

Robbie Owen

Partner

Government needs to get a grip of the growing list of issues with obtaining planning for major infrastructure projects.

Infrastructure expert Anne-Marie Friel of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said the committee’s recognition of the need for a more purposeful and systematic, outcomes-based approach to infrastructure delivery was welcome and reflected the most important collaborative thinking that had been taking place across the sector.

Friel said the report needed to be put into the context of the government’s aims for net zero carbon emissions by 2050 as well as other policy targets within the infrastructure sector.

“If the UK’s ambitions on net-zero are to be achieved, we need to use the levelling up agenda to deliver radical change intended to drive a more thoughtful, systems based approach to the way we construct and use our infrastructure assets and this will undoubtedly result in a myriad of other benefits for society,” Friel said.

“The committee’s focus on planning, people and good project management is absolutely correct and will find great support across industry, the challenge will be in ensuring sufficient resource and incentive for implementation of these recommendations. We applaud the government’s current Building Safety Bill as an important example of how a fundamental improvement in approach to manage a complex issue can be supported through government policy,” Friel said.

The MPs said infrastructure projects should be set up and run with a focus on achieving stated benefits, and that a project should not be seen as successful – even if it completes on time and within budget – if it does not achieve what it set out to do.

The committee said the data published in Infrastructure and Projects Authority reports was currently insufficient to demonstrate whether projects were in line with what the public was promised when projects were devised. It called on the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury to set out the standardised data they expected to be collected on significant projects, and for government departments to publish this data in annual reports from 2020/21.

The report also focused on the skills needed to deliver major infrastructure projects. It noted there was a lack of skilled staff in the public sector, which had the potential to act as a significant block on the government's ability to achieve its goals in infrastructure. It recommended that the government should consider whether a separate and more competitive pay-scale for senior staff would be feasible in order to retain people throughout the life of a project.

Infrastructure expert Jon Hart of Pinsent Masons said the committee had highlighted the need for the government to publish the National Infrastructure Strategy, which was set to be published in spring 2020 before being delayed.

“The committee’s report also highlights the danger of Anglo-Saxon pork barrel politics. The significance of the forthcoming National Infrastructure Strategy that was halted by political and Covid-related changes, as well as the need for honesty and transparency in the CSR in respect of infrastructure spending commitments are very clear,” Hart said.

Infrastructure planning expert Robbie Owen of Pinsent Masons welcomed the report's call for a coherent national strategy and for proper local consultation on projects.  In response to the Committee's chair's comment that the government must clarify its overarching aims and objectives for the economy and how planned infrastructure investment will support these aims, he said it was vital that the National Infrastructure Strategy was quickly and firmly reflected in national infrastructure planning policy. This was in order to address the storm clouds that were rapidly gathering over the ageing suite of National Policy Statements that underpin the planning system for national infrastructure projects.

"Government needs to get a grip of the growing list of issues with obtaining planning for major infrastructure projects and it is vital that these issues are tackled as part of the National Infrastructure Strategy this autumn," he said. "A new overarching National Policy Statement reflecting the National Infrastructure Strategy should be put in place within 12 months to restore infrastructure market and community confidence in the planning process and get more sustainable large infrastructure projects off the ground.”