UK infrastructure analysis: Public sector must give clearer direction to contractors | New Civil Engineer

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A report compiled by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) details the plethora of reasons infrastructure projects in the UK are often delayed and overbudget, including the clarity of communication between public sector clients and the contractors.

Within the report, released this week, BCG presents its studies of massive UK projects such as Crossrail (aka the Elizabeth Line) and Hinkley Point C and compares them with international alternatives, showing how many issues exist within the whole timeline of building infrastructure in this country.

Problems raised include an overcomplicated planning system, projects having to rely on a number of small contractors in a supply chain rather than one large contractor and major project scope constantly changing, as well as a number of others.

In the report, BCG calls for greater communication from government and the clients of the industry with the contractors it employs.

The report says: “The public sector must give clearer and more constrained direction to contractors. Provide greater clarity in the early stages of a project.

“Make choices early and stick to them to provide for smoother project delivery. Be disciplined and, where needed, be ruthless with enforcement.”

BCG raises the point that the lack of clearly defined objectives in the early stage of a project leads to it often having to be redesigned and rescoped after construction has started. The report states these changes are due to clients not fully understanding the engineering risks associated with what they are doing and minimal upfront investment.

This theory is particularly applied to Crossrail the report.

BCG says: “Construction began before designs were sufficiently mature leading to multiple redesigns and rescoping.”

It continues: “Crossrail has been a hugely successful project overall, seeing over 200M passengers and reducing travel times by up to 20 minutes.

“However, it opened three and a half years late and £4bn over budget, for a total cost of £18.8bn, putting it in the 100th percentile for unit costs compared to similar projects.”

A further issue the report raises which is commonly spoken about in the UK is that the planning system that governs development of the projects is “too long and complex”.

It goes on to say that the planning process has “multiple veto opportunities, adding process with little view on cost and time implications, while permissions and approvals take far too long.

“Required feasibility assessments are over complicated and consultations often take place multiple times with designs changing every time, partly as they seek to cover every stakeholder possible with no reference to which ones are more important.

“Early engagement can be beneficial, but mainly if it focuses on the mission of the project and how it can unlock benefits for the public.”

Ranked against other nations, the UK is highest for the amount of months and percentage of time taken on planning over construction.

The report continues: “While lengthy timelines can be an indicator of delays and inefficient planning processes, it is not as simple as just shortening the time taken; rather it is a matter of how effectively the time is used.

“French roads are a good example of a longer but more effective use of time. Their pre-construction phase is 40% longer than average but their unit costs are the lowest across all peer groups and nearly half that of the UK (£4.24M per lane/km compared to £7.77M per lane/km).

“France focuses on early feasibility stages for major infrastructure projects prior to any formal consenting process. This involves an extensive consultation on the fundamental objectives of the project rather than purely specific designs.”

Using the example of the delayed A27 Arundel Bypass, the report says: “Project complexity required more time for consultations with landowners to ensure safety, affordability and climate considerations.”

BCG’s report also highlights the many issues that exist within the UK supply chain. This extends to how the construction contracting works in this country, in the sense of sub-contractors being often used.

It says: “The fragmented nature of the UK construction sector often means multiple small construction firms are required.

“This not only increases costs and complexity on individual projects, but also means none of the firms have the incentive or even ability to invest in capital/technology improvements that would benefit the industry at large.

“For example, the construction of Hinkley Point C involves 3,500 British firms alone, managing such a complex supply chain requires significant time and investment.”

A government spokesperson said: “We’re focused on speeding up the delivery of UK infrastructure while driving efficiency as we grow the economy, and last week we published our roadmap for the construction sector on the next decade of projects, projected to amount to over £700bn.

“We are also delivering over £600bn of planned public sector investment in infrastructure, R&D and defence over the next five years, including an unprecedented package to improve connections in our city regions and billions of pounds to decarbonise buildings.”

The spokesperson further commented that government is also taking a number of steps to catalyse private investment including ambitious planning and grid reforms to accelerate infrastructure delivery, setting up the UK Infrastructure Bank, the Mansion House Reform and unlocking £100bn of institutional capital through Solvency II.

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