Former Highways chief: "I've worked on many exciting projects in 30 years. But none as exciting as this"

Graham Dalton, former Highways Agency CEO and member of the National Needs Assessment Executive Group explains why it really is such a big deal.

I have spent much of my career designing, building and operating transport infrastructure. I have worked on some great projects, and will work on many more. But all too often we just think of infrastructure as a series of construction projects without thinking about why we are building it.

We take it for granted that we can travel at will, and that we can have the goods and services we want delivered to our doors virtually immediately. We expect utilities to flow at the flick of a switch, or the turn of a tap. And we expect to pay relatively little to enjoy this high standard of living.

Our national infrastructure is there to support that lifestyle, so we can work, travel, get our services to market – to support a strong national economy and enable the quality of life we demand.

Much of our infrastructure is working beyond its design capacity –asked to carry traffic not imagined at the time it was designed.  It is clear too that the forecast growth in population over the next three decades, and the forecast growth in GDP, means that there will be more reliance on infrastructure.

Let’s then add the challenge of making the world a better place. Improving air quality and reducing carbon emissions means radical change to our transport network. That change will create demand for a lot more electricity generated from clean or renewable sources, which in turn compounds the challenge of renewing a fleet of ageing power stations.

These are big challenges and demand a big response. I am pleased to be working with colleagues from across the infrastructure, business and academic community to prepare an independent “National Needs Assessment” for infrastructure. The assessment, led by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and chaired by its President Sir John Armitt, will look into the demands our infrastructure will need to meet by 2050 – whether to replace existing capacity, provide more capacity to meet growing demand, or support our environmental obligations. The assessment will culminate in a report which will be published in the autumn and provided to the National Infrastructure Commission. 

As I said above, I have worked on many exciting projects over the last 30 years. But none as exciting as this; this the first time I have felt a real sense that we as professionals are working together – collaborating to make the world a better place, rather than the traditional “blinkered sector” approach. 

Most importantly however, we are not just creating a list of projects. This assessment is evidence based, and will draw from a wide pool of views, data, research and economic and social forecasts. 

The infrastructure debate must be based on “need”.  I look forward to seeing this project develop and encourage involvement in the evidence gathering process over the coming months.