Listening to the public will secure better infrastructure

We have not yet established a clear narrative of infrastructure delivery, writes Peter Brett Associates chairman Keith Mitchell

In December last year, Sir John Armitt launched the results of an Independent Survey of Attitudes to Infrastructure in Great Britain, published by Copper Consultancy in partnership with Peter Brett Associates. In welcoming the report, Armitt identified the critical need “to explain – in plain language – what we are trying to achieve and why” in order to secure political and public support for national infrastructure projects.

Explaining the why, what and how of infrastructure was also high on the agenda when two groups of infrastructure professionals met recently to discuss the implications of the report’s findings. Delegates quickly identified some interesting differences between public perceptions and our current national policy position.

For example, renewable energy and housing are identified by the public as the highest priorities for investment – and yet housing is not included in proposals for planning our national infrastructure, and renewable energy investment is stalling as political and financial support is withdrawn.

The public also wants to see strong improvements to the nation’s infrastructure, and feels that there is too much red tape in the way.

These apparent differences of view show that we have not yet established
a clear narrative of infrastructure delivery, the key priorities for investment, and what needs to be done to maximise economic and social return on investment. This creates confusion, inconsistent policy making, and unnecessary conflict in the system.

So what can be done to create a more positive and constructive environment for infrastructure delivery? At the project level, many delegates had examples of how lack of engagement had led to delays in the planning process, and poor project outcomes. There seemed to be a strong desire to create a better evidence base to support a clear narrative, strong leadership and early and open engagement, leading to better project outcomes. Could the NIC (or the Infrastructure Projects Authority) promote this work? And could it provide a repository for good practice and support better knowledge sharing?

Overall, there was a strong sense that the public should be trusted to reflect common-sense views about infrastructure needs in a way that might address political anxiety about tackling the critical infrastructure issues. This level of engagement is vital if we are to deliver greater benefit from investment in infrastructure.