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Infrastructure delivery: What should leadership look like?

Having conducted dozens of interviews over recent weeks and caught up with contacts old and new at the National Infrastructure Forum (NIF), it’s clear we are living and working in particularly interesting times.

We have a perfect storm of Brexit, infrastructure due for renewal, major projects in the pipeline and the need for political consensus, all of which present a unique set of market conditions. 

Throw into the mix a fast-moving digital age and the growing expectations the public and stakeholders, and the infrastructure sector is clearly on the cusp of a potentially revolutionary era. 

This was the context behind a new industry report – Perspectives on Infrastructure: How can we improve the delivery of UK infrastructure? – launched at NIF last week.

Who’s in charge

Three core themes came out of the report. In addition to ‘project certainty’ and ‘collaboration’, there was a focus on ‘who should take charge of delivering infrastructure’.

The report interviewed 14 industry leaders, canvassed 130 infrastructure industry figures and, with YouGov, spoke to more than 1,600 members of the public.

The views of the electorate serve to challenge the opinions of those in the infrastructure bubble – public mood informs the thinking of MPs who, in turn, influence the thinking of government. We should not lose sight of that.

So who did the survey respondents think should take charge of infrastructure?

“The balancing act of when to delegate power and responsibility is going to be essential”

The majority of industry figures – 74 per cent – agreed that government should have the main responsibility for driving infrastructure delivery in the UK. The general public seemed less convinced – 35 per cent.

While industry thinks that government needs to lead the charge, the majority also agree that devolution and decentralisation of power is and will be a positive development for the UK. However, they also expressed trepidation that it could lead to regional competition and the emergence of clear winners and losers.

Economic imperative

It’s clearly a topic that is front of mind for all those with a stake in the future of UK infrastructure – the balancing act of when to delegate power and responsibility is going to be essential. 

What was also clear from the research was an agreement that effective infrastructure delivery is vital to the UK’s economic future. Those interviewed expressed an urgent need for the UK to remain an attractive destination for foreign direct investment, and for the government to be confident and clear in taking a leading role.

However, views on precisely how and where the government should deploy its time, effort and finance were varied. Going forward, consensus here is clearly going to be critical.

One particularly interesting trend was that, while the majority believed government should take a lead, many respondents put forward ideas and concepts that the industry is best placed to influence.

Above all, the drive for greater efficiency in construction is something we can – and should – all get behind.

Will Gard is head of infrastructure at law firm Burges Salmon

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