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Infrastructure expectations and requirements are shifting

Two things are now becoming apparent: firstly, the importance of infrastructure as an enabler of economic growth is acknowledged and understood.

Unreliable, overcapacity or inefficient infrastructure is simply unacceptable – whether considered from a social, economic or environmental perspective.

Secondly, regardless of the degree, structure or method of private sector involvement in UK infrastructure, the government ultimately carries the default performance risk – Railtrack, Metronet and the East Coast Mainline franchise are all cases in point.

Whether the government’s participation is as regulator, part-owner, giver of concessions or guarantor, in all instances it is also the default decision-maker on the split between tax and user charges, as the only two sources of funding for infrastructure.

Various borrowing and investment schemes are necessary and welcome but all are ultimately funded by tax and user charges.

Wider consequences of rail funding

Where the division between the two is set is for the government of the day to decide, but wherever the emphasis is placed there are of course explicit implications for society and the economy, and funds must be used efficiently and present value for money.

“The recent flood events sparked debate about the availability of our infrastructure networks during extreme weather”

Infrastructure will, due to climate change, be subjected to increasingly frequent and severe weather events. This has been known for some time, but the 2013/14 winter flood events thrust the issue into the media and political spotlight.

With it came a host of questions about our resiliency in the UK and in particular the extent to which we acknowledge and understand the interdependent nature of our systems, as many flood defences around the country were overwhelmed and caused disruption to transport, energy, water and waste networks.

While we can’t be resilient to every eventuality, more action is needed on the issue of resilience; the ‘at risk’ or ‘requires attention’ grades given in the State of the Nation scorecard for flood management, energy and local transport networks are testament to that. 

Expectations of availability to shift

The recent flood events also sparked debate about the availability of our infrastructure networks during extreme weather.

We need to recognise that as extreme weather events become more frequent, the likelihood of planned closures or significantly restricted services will inevitably increase, as making all services available at all times during all weather conditions simply will not be cost-efficient.

Our expectations of availability will need to change.

“The need to design and replace faster and cheaper should not be seen as a threat, but an opportunity for the construction industry”

We all have a role to play – maintaining, operating and adding to our infrastructure needs investment in efficiency by applying appropriate standards quicker.

This will drive the delivery of efficient and innovative infrastructure and save cost, time and carbon.

The need to design and replace faster and cheaper should not be seen as a threat, but an opportunity for the construction industry to accelerate investment into the infrastructure sector, together with the necessary training at all skills levels.

Clearly there are many challenges ahead in adapting to climate change and also supporting a growing population; however I am confident the UK has the professional, institutional and organisational ability to meet them.

Keith Clarke is ICE vice president and chair of the Institution of Civil Engineers

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