In conversation with Gordon Masterton

What is your one forecast/prediction for public sector infrastructure this year?

Whilst we will see some notable successes such as the opening of the Elizabeth Line (Crossrail), and continuing progress on HS2, Thames Tideway and the ambitious Highways England programme, we may also receive some sobering advice and insights from the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster. It is in the nature of inquiries, set up to investigate root causes of manifest failures, that we cannot expect to see recommendations endorsing the status quo. It could be a year where the integrity of our sector is tested and infrastructure professionals must respond positively to any recommendations for change, and deliver such changes with energy. If there is one anchor that we must hold fast, it is integrity. If we lose that, we lose the confidence of the very people that our endeavours are supposed to be enriching. The reason we believe infrastructure is important is because it delivers beneficial impact. We may need to remind ourselves of that, and re-charge our attitude to safety.

What one thing would you change about public sectors approach to Infrastructure delivery?

There is much evidence that The UK’s productivity in construction is poor compared to other G7 countries – 35% behind Germany and 18% behind the G7 average.

I like the principles of “From Transactions to Enterprises” published by the Institution of Civil Engineers’ Infrastructure Client Group. It recommends moving infrastructure delivery from a purely transactional to a community enterprise model, which could help the UK’s productivity problems. ICE is developing this through “Project 13”. Project 13 has the potential to deliver a step change in the way projects are managed so that the focus is on long-term value and wider benefits.

Watch out too for the outputs of the Infrastructure and Project Authority’s “Project X” where university researchers are increasingly being engaged in tackling the “wicked” problems of complex infrastructure systems.

What is the biggest challenge/infrastructure mega trend facing the public sector?

Picking one is tough. There are seventeen Sustainable Development Goals agreed in 2015 as the blueprint for a successful planet. Infrastructure underpins many of those, and hitting the targets set by the SDGs should be a strong focus for future planning. But I don’t think they are getting enough visibility in most government departments. One target that is clearly aligned to infrastructure is the target to halve road deaths globally by 2020. With two years of data since the target was set, we already know it’s highly unlikely we’ll meet it. Even in the UK, with a proud record of road safety improvement, annual road deaths in 2016 were higher than in 2011. But do we know why?

That’s just one example. The SDGs on clean water and sanitation; affordable and clean energy; industry, innovation and infrastructure; sustainable cities and communities; and climate action all depend on us understanding how to make the right decisions on the right infrastructure at the right time.

Why is the National Infrastructure Forum important for public sector professionals to attend?

The National Infrastructure Forum is an essential event for all professionals interested in improving the way we design, deliver and operate our national infrastructure assets. Sure, some knowledge can be absorbed by sitting in front of a laptop, but the true power and value of constructive knowledge exchange lies in sharing, discussing, and challenging in real time the issues that matter most. Never underestimate the power of thoughtful debate. The Forum will be key to shaping the future of infrastructure.

Professor Gordon Masterton is the Chair of Future Infrastructure at the University of Edinburgh. If you would like to know more about the governments ambitious industrial strategy and plan to drive British productivity, Gordon will be chairing the National Infrastructure Forum at  at the Public Sector Show on 26th June, at ExCel London.