Vaccine-style task forces could help Britain build back better

Government urged to connect infrastructure networks digitally, in new Infrastructure Forum report.

New task forces could take over slow-moving infrastructure projects to accelerate progress and ensure that UK infrastructure is digitally transformed, according to a new report from the Infrastructure Forum today. (19/4/21).

The report – What does tomorrow look like? - says that the UK government should review departmental responsibilities for key infrastructure networks and should consider handing functions to specialist task forces reporting to No 10. These, say the report, could be modelled on the Vaccine Task Force led by Kate Bingham, bringing together experts from different organisations that would otherwise be siloed.

Sir John Armitt, chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission, is one of the leaders of Britain’s infrastructure sectors contributing comments to the report. He said: “The UK Regulators Network can play a key role in helping to ensure that the sectors work constructively with each other, and an independent chair and data sharing function would further support this goal”.

The study says that an example where a task force could speed things up is the confused and slow rollout of electric vehicle charging points.

“The National Audit Office recommendation that government review whether the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles has the capacity, skills and remit to enable it to effectively oversee the fast-paced transition should be acted upon at once. An expert taskforce reporting to Number 10 could be the solution”, says the report.

Among the report’s recommendations are:

  • Following the Union Connectivity Review led by Sir Peter Hendy, the UK should introduce a National Strategic Transport Network; 
  • The UK should set a clear ambition for, and strategy towards, a multi-mode, multi-operator contactless electronic ticket/booking system covering the entirety of the union with real time information systems;
  • Energy infrastructure should be connected through digital networks to create smart energy grids; 
  • Roads should be upgraded with digital infrastructure to facilitate electric charging of vehicles, and in the medium term will require new technology for autonomous vehicles;
  • Digital airspace modernisation should be speeded up to deliver flights without stacking or delays, improving safety and reducing emissions.

Dipesh Shah, chairman of Highways England, said: “Advancements to our daily operations will be facilitated by a data-rich automated traffic-management system, one of which has just been set up in the north-east. We will soon roll these out across the seven regions of the country. In addition, many of our maintenance needs will be identified by drones, and we will use sensors to ensure that we are proactive, rather than reactive, in our approach.”

Sir David Higgins, chairman of Gatwick Airport, said: “Our airplanes should be landing on a digital track, without the need to slow down or circle. Updates to the technology will not only improve passenger safety, it will allow us to reduce our carbon emissions, helping the entire aviation industry on its way to meeting the decarbonisation target”.

Richard Moriarty, CEO of the Civil Aviation Authority, said: “Advanced network communications that are reliable, resilient and interconnected are critical for everyone’s safety and efficient operations. The development of this communication infrastructure opens a tremendous opportunity to move quickly to modernise how we use airspace. Reforming the ‘highways and byways’ in the sky could bring environmental, fuel saving and noise reduction benefits.”

Mark Thurston, CEO of HS2, said: “The passenger experience is at the fore of our thinking in our increasingly digitised world and our passengers will benefit from the most up-to-date train technology. We are building the most digitally advanced railway in the country and using a high-tech digital signalling system, we will be able to facilitate faster and much more frequent services.”

A Forum statement said: “In preparing this report, The Infrastructure Forum has found a new momentum to develop these networks. Old plans have been resurrected and new ones brought forward. The scale of finance needed to handle Covid has brought the investment required into perspective. Building new networks for the future is now a no-brainer rather than a debatable option.

“The new insight is that these networks interconnect across the sectors. Wireless, 5G, Satellites and the fibre backhaul that will underpin data communication are critical to making possible next generation net zero energy, digital roads and railways and the operation of autonomous vehicles and freight- or people-carrying drones.

“Smart energy networks, in turn, provide the clean power for electric cars, electric trains and eventually electric aircraft; and also for the massive consumption of electric power needed by tomorrow’s data centres, supporting seamless cloud systems which, through the web, are transforming work-life balance for the better.”

Click here to download the full report.

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