The infrastructure customer is always right.

For a reminder of the impact that infrastructure assets make on lives and businesses look no further than the TV and newspaper reports being beamed constantly from the flood-ravaged regions of the UK.

For so many people, life has, quite literally, been turned upside down. Businesses have been brought to a standstill – some possibly for ever – and home ruined as huge swathes of land disappeared beneath the rising floodwaters.

And while Environment Agency chairman Chris Smith is clearly at the centre of the political storm, it is the infrastructure and the rarely spoken subject of river dredging which is fuelling the debate. 

Now the facts over whether the catastrophic situation in Somerset, the Thames Valley and beyond is due to poor policy, lack of funding or simply down unusually high rainfall remain as murky as the floodwater itself. The reality is that, for whatever reason, the public – the infrastructure customer – has been let down.

And as anyone in business knows, the customer is king and always right. Thus the response to this month’s flooding by infrastructure professionals must absolutely be to make change. And assuming that no one – not even communities secretary Eric Pickles - can actually control the rain, that means tackling either policy of funding. Or both.

It is therefore interesting to read this week about the challenges and opportunities facing the rail and road sectors – both of which sit alongside the flood defence as stalwarts of the nation’s infrastructure. 

And both, like flood defence, have their challenges when it comes to meeting customer expectation.

On the roads it is of course congestion and on the railway it is overcrowding and unreliability. And just as we see in Somerset, the debate will always rage over whether policy of funding - or both - lies at the heart of these issues. And there are no simple answers

But the good news, I think, is that in both the road and rail sectors we are increasingly focussed on the needs of the customer – the public and businesses – when it comes to decisions about how to prioritise spending.

The move is definitely away from just designing and building infrastructure, more towards working with the users to solve the operational problems and so meet the customer's need. 

On the railways there is are targets and aspirations in CP5 by both Network Rail and the regulator to focus resources towards improving passenger service. And as the Highways Agency morphs into a private entity, boosting the road users’ experience is top of its list, with an independent “customer champion” ready to keep it on track.

There will never be enough money when it comes to investment in infrastructure. Our challenge is to spend wisely. As is shown by the floods, whatever the cause, losing sight of the customer has massive repercussions. All should take note.

Antony Oliver is the editor of Infrastructure Intelligence

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