Donald Morrison: We must ‘think, think, think’ before we ‘build, build, build’

Donald Morrison: We must ‘think, think, think’ before we ‘build, build, build’

This week, business leaders will gather for the London Infrastructure Summit, a virtual meeting to explore how we recast our thinking about the capital’s infrastructure needs following Covid-19 and build the right kind of city for our future – resilient, vibrant and sustainable.

The timing for this couldn’t be better. The government is about to publish its National Infrastructure Strategy and the Prime Minister has already set out his vision to accelerate investment and, in his words: “build, build, build”. The capital continues to play a huge role within this agenda.

We should wholeheartedly welcome the scale of that ambition. Over decades, the way we approach how infrastructure is planned, procured, developed and delivered in the UK as a whole has become predictable. The disruption caused by the outbreak of Covid can really help us draw a line in the sand and make smarter, more objective decisions for a post-pandemic world.

However, there is also a danger that we may very quickly “build, build, build” the wrong things if we don’t first “think, think, think.” There are three key areas the government must address in its Infrastructure Strategy as a matter of priority:

The first is finance. In a time of recession, we will have to think more smartly about new sources of funding outside of the public sector. According to the CBI’s report on infrastructure last month there is no shortage of appetite for investment but, nevertheless, barriers remain. Some of the best examples of innovative financing are in London – take the Tideway Tunnel project, which used a Regulated Asset Base (RAB) model to enable private financing and successfully developed a blended funding mix that accesses competitive green bonds. The government should look closely at how to make new ways of financing mainstream for the rest of the country, incorporating the creation of a new Sovereign Wealth Fund.

Secondly, procurement practices currently focus almost exclusively on cost. However, if the government is truly committed to “levelling up”, we will have to procure infrastructure based on outcomes to deliver infrastructure differently. How can we build upon our existing experiences and create models for leaner and more effective delivery looking forward? As part of our work with Simetrica-Jacobs for example, we’ve created a Treasury-compliant method of embedding social value into decision-making, meaning our investments can now be guided by how they will impact people and communities. For too long, the debate has pitted investment in the capital against the rest of the country. This new kind of model provides an objective way to understand how, and crucially, where, we invest. 

Finally, we need much better integration. In terms of city spaces, for example, there could be much more efficient procurement around multiple sectors. Previously we might have procured a transport project separately to a flood resilience project, which would be procured separately to an education project. Now, we can bring them together for better outcomes and greater efficiency. Take Meridian Water, where we are partnering with Enfield Council on the development of a major £6 billion, 20-year London regeneration programme bringing 10,000 mixed-use homes and thousands of jobs to Enfield. This new part of London will also integrate major investment into transport infrastructure, schools, health services, community facilities, parks, leisure and culture.

The government must incentivise enterprises that are able to deliver across silos as part of its contracting approach, in order to promote better collaboration. At the heart of this will be an emphasis on technology and digital capability as we look to drive future planning using intelligent data and insights. Cohesion will be key, and we must also not lose sight of the importance of “placemaking”. A sense of cohesive locality is of utmost value to urban identity, and we must ensure we deliver and build positively upon the people-place experience across London and other cities throughout the UK.

It’s time for the infrastructure sector – and the government – to step up. If we look at other sectors outside the infrastructure space, we see a rate of change that we aren’t seeing within the sector yet, and this creates real opportunity. 

It is easy for us all to get absorbed in reactive, short-term planning. But collectively if we really think differently and aim higher we can meet the government’s objective of putting the UK back on the global infrastructure stage, delivering better, more inclusive outcomes.

Donald Morrison is Senior Vice President of People & Places Solutions, Europe with Jacobs engineering group. Follow Jacobs on Twitter. Details of the London Infrastructure Summit, organised by London First here. Photograph: An aerial shot of the Meridian Water project in Enfield. exists to provide fair and thorough coverage of the UK capital’s politics, development and culture. It depends greatly on donations from readers. Give £5 a month or £50 a year and you will receive the On London Extra Thursday email, which rounds up London news, views and information from a wide range of sources. Click here to donate directly or contact for bank account details. Thanks.


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