This time last year I thought 2014 promised to be a more decisive year than the last with more ‘doing’ announcements. It was and there were, so it is good to know the crystal ball is fully functioning, especially having turned 40. But what does 2015 hold in store?
As 2014 closed out, the National Infrastructure Plan (NIP) was announced. What seemed like the third announcement of the same money (it was) was, in fact, a watershed moment: meat on the bone, a to-do list for the next parliamentary term – and beyond.
And this is a moot point. With the general election looming, we run the risk of wasting the best part of 2015 through poor (or no) political leadership, replaced by bombastic quick wins/instant hits and hundred-day plans.
The country’s NIP is too important to be used as a political football. Cross-party support for a wide range of major projects is surely both necessary and possible. It is wildly expensive and inefficient to stop/start these projects and a consensus must be reached – but who will drive it?
Britain needs to get behind its infrastructure. New infrastructure and development is not something being done to the electorate, it is being done for and with all of us, for the greater good. We can help to shape our future too. Smart cities run by renewable energy, accessed by electric vehicles, are achievable – not just a pipe dream – if we all get involved. Are we up for it?
Yes. We, the majority, are. Here are two examples.
Despite David Cameron’s attempts to sway the liaison committee otherwise, the latest DECC tracker data on public attitudes to renewables shows that even onshore wind enjoys support from 67% of the population. And we know that support is even higher among the 18 to 44-year-old demographic.
And we’re using less electricity, despite economic growth. Since 2008, electricity consumption has gone down, despite the boom in electronic gadgets and large TVs. The Daily Mail’s futile campaign to ‘save’ incandescent bulbs may have appealed to the time-rich generation, the same group that often involve themselves in local proposals and form the bedrock of parish councils up and down the country, but it clearly had no traction with the mainstream general public. They want hi-tech and lower bills, not history lessons in ‘that’s the way it’s always been’.
But, and it is a big but, will the public be heard? Will they be represented post-May 2015? And will the Government be in a position to push on with The Plan?
I fear not, and we are entering a period that may redefine the phrase ‘democratic deficit’. Whichever way the election goes, it is unlikely to be landslide territory, making decisive leadership difficult at best. Whatever the turnout, there will be claims that ‘the Government does not represent me’ and so on. So the key to anything happening will be to demonstrate support from the electorate and, in lieu of democratic representation and leadership (or ‘votes’), we need to look to other means.
In short, the space (the democratic deficit) presents an opportunity. It is an opportunity for industry – those involved and invested in future infrastructure – to step up and lead from the front. And to do so, they must demonstrate support, which means much earlier and deeper communications and engagement. And profile.
The very best brains are working on it right now, and they want our input. However, the public’s optimism and spirit is fragile – it is easily dampened by the negativity of those who feel they are adversely affected by new infrastructure. What could we do better to help those affected? Watch this space…
Project funding will also be a big issue in 2015. We have so much to build, but who will pay? Britain has a world-class reputation for constructing major projects and for this we can attract funding. But planning consent usually needs to be in place before funding is made available – there needs to be certainty. More projects would attract finance at an earlier stage if there was more certainty around the planning system. And, with more funding, projects would be able to make a better job of pre-planning application consultation and engagement with stakeholders to ensure that they are seen to be acceptable, with all options properly considered. What can be done to make UK infrastructure more financially viable from the project initiation phase?
The wider benefits of major projects are mostly uncharted. The London 2012 Legacy and Crossrail teams are the first to attempt to capture the broader benefits and impacts of these trail-blazing mega-projects. House prices, jobs, skills and community affluence have all benefited. The economics of major projects are even more attractive to a broader electorate when the wider benefits are taken into consideration. Communicating and capturing the wider benefits (value) from the outset will surely make new infrastructure more palatable to local and national audiences. And above all, ensure the wider benefits are embedded and delivered.
Finally, what is the identity of infrastructure today? A challenge for our sector is to collectively communicate the importance of this work, build momentum and encourage public interest and support. Infrastructure needs an identity, it must achieve a broader understanding and there needs to be excitement around what will represent the biggest feat of engineering since Victorian times.
John Twitchen is executive director of Copper communications consultancy