Is shovel ready, the same as shovel worthy?

Paul C Maliphant, Chair of the Board of Management, CEWales and Development Director (Wales), Mott MacDonald Ltd explains why it is vital that the infrastructure schemes that are fit for current and future generations are the only ones that are shovel worthy

Infrastructure exists to support social wellbeing, underpinned by a sound economy and a sustainable environment. Poorly performing infrastructure can result in faltering economic performance, environmental stress, and a weaker, less inclusive society.

When infrastructure inefficiencies or deficiencies are identified, creating new assets ought not to be the first, ‘go-to’ solution. Our focus should be on achieving and sustaining the optimal performance of infrastructure, so that it continues to meet society’s needs in the face of population growth, rapid technological advances and evolving risks such as from climate change. Where needs can’t be met and risks addressed solely by managing existing asset systems better, then there is strong justification for new projects: they will be shovel worthy.

Our industry should focus on infrastructure ‘in-use’, asking: how effective is existing infrastructure in meeting society’s needs?

  • how can infrastructure performance be improved for all members of society – do we know who infrastructure is failing, and how?
  • what interventions are required – changes to asset operation and management, upgrades or refurbishments?
  • who are the stakeholders and gatekeepers when changes are required, and how can we engage with them to enable performance improvements faster?

In answering these questions, we must consider social accessibility, inclusion, empowerment, resilience and wellbeing. These should be principal criteria for determining what ‘good outcomes’ look like and used alongside conventional metrics to evaluate the whole life performance, value and success of infrastructure.

In December 2020, the Institution of Civil Engineers provided the infrastructure industry with ‘A systems approach to infrastructure delivery’. It’s a welcome contribution to the discussion about the future of the infrastructure industry, complementing the UK government’s ‘Construction playbook’, also launched in December. 

In Wales, Constructing Excellence (CEWales) has been placing an overt focus on Construction for Future Generations, aligning our thoughts with the aims, ambitions, goals and ways of working of the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.  Construction and infrastructure, both new and existing, must serve the needs of Welsh people today, without compromising the well-being of future generations either in Wales or elsewhere. This requires a shift in attitudes and behaviours, sector transformation by development of new future-proofed customs and practices to replace the old ones that are often now not fit for purpose. And to ensure these new practices become embedded will require leadership and, of great importance, empowerment to allow people to champion these value and outcome focussed practices without fear.

In May 2020, the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, with support and input from CE Wales, published The Future Generations Report 2020. This contains many recommendations of value to the sector and whilst the focus, in line with the Act, is on the public sector, the private sector should also embrace beneficial change before such is enforced.  Example recommendations include:

  • All publicly funded buildings should be carbon neutral with building regulations and standards amended and enforced to ensure that we are not building “old” new schools, hospitals and other infrastructure that will contribute to climate change and not be fit for future generations
  • Growing new sectors, alternative energy businesses, emerging engineering processes, product design and waste management to lead the way in a ‘green economy’
  • Explore and demonstrate how to move to a system where products can be used again (and again) to create further value (the principles of the circular economy).
  • Take a ‘place-based’ approach to communities.
  • Deliver year on year increases in biodiverse green and blue infrastructure and tree canopy cover and increase investment in nature-based solutions to alleviate flooding and other challenges.
  • Using land holdings to maximise its biodiversity value, for example, implementing ambitious biodiversity and green infrastructure action plans and becoming pesticide free.
  • Fully integrate transport, housing and land use planning to minimise the need for people to travel - prioritise provision of high-quality cycle facilities, encourage active travel and support people to take public transport.
  • Embrace the new presumption in Planning Policy Wales 10 in favour of sustainable development to ensure that social, economic, cultural and environmental issues are balanced and integrated.
  • Use the outcome model provided in annex B of Planning Policy Wales 10.
  • Refuse consent for developments which are not fully aligned with Planning Policy Wales 10 and the Well-being of the Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 i.e. which do not contribute towards the delivery of sustainable development and do not improve the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales.

The Office of the Future Generations Commissioner and CEWales have now initiated a collaborative project to raise the profile of key issues, get new thinking and new ways of working into common parlance and practice for the betterment of the sector, and to enhance the outcomes we can achieve together.  Watch this space for further updates as we focus construction on a brighter, more sustainable future for human society on planet earth. A worthy ambition to sit alongside a focus on shovel worthy development.