Features - Business

National Infrastructure Strategy: a risk-led approach to tackling sustainability

The Government’s one-year spending review, announced on 4th September, promised to deliver an ‘infrastructure revolution’, with Chancellor Sajid Javid saying there will be money earmarked for climate issues when the National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS) is published in the coming weeks.

But will it do enough to protect the environment and mitigate the damaging effects of climate change?

A change in culture

Whilst the NIS is expected to outline further investment for infrastructure programmes, it is unclear how much focus will be given to improving the resilience of existing and new infrastructure and minimising its environmental impact.

The proposed spending commitment of £30m for infrastructure decarbonisation schemes, promised as part of Government’s commitment to achieving its target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, is unlikely to be sufficient.

Without a targeted, long-term investment plan, the opportunity to reduce carbon emissions and develop more energy-efficient infrastructure will be missed.

In order to make real change in this area, a change of culture is needed, led by Government, to ensure sustainability is prioritised in the design and delivery of all large-scale infrastructure programmes and other building projects in the future. This change must be focused on understanding the risk in order to take an informed management approach.

Making a long-term commitment to invest in energy-efficient and resilient infrastructure, will not only demonstrate that the UK is embracing sustainability, it will also ensure the industry does not fall behind other countries and retains its world-renowned reputation for excellence.

In order for the strategy to deliver on the recommendations set out in the National Infrastructure Commission’s National Infrastructure Assessment published last year, the strategy must do more than simply set out a plan to fund UK infrastructure programmes, it must also explain how it is going to facilitate the opportunities emerging from more local decision making.

The use of technology

Much has been achieved technologically in the last few years to improve sustainability across the construction sector. The NIS can build on this by helping to standardise sustainability best practice.

For example, it should present a vision for harnessing data and making use of emerging technologies to transform operational activity, as well as supporting new delivery models. These activities have an associated cost and, whilst essential to improving the resilience of new and existing infrastructure, they could easily be overlooked if not explicitly included in the forthcoming strategy.

For the Government, a change of tack when considering budgets for infrastructure projects could also help to make the most of any funds available. Adopting a risk-centric approach, which is rooted in a sound understanding of climate change-related risks could improve outcomes by ensuring appropriate steps are taken to fix the causes of risk and mitigate their consequences in the long term.

Risk assessment

In particular, accurate risk identification and assessments are needed at the outset to record any specific climate change-related risks and to design solutions capable of mitigating them in the long term.

Access to good data is essential in order to identify the risks surrounding climate change and assess their likely impact, accurately at the outset.

Budgets are finite and, with the best will in the world, are unlikely to stretch to delivering infrastructure that resolves every climate issue. A risk-focused approach provides a tool to assist programme leaders in determining where best to spend the resources that are available.

When assessing areas of potential risk, understanding the underlying causes and consequences of identified risks can help to mitigate and manage any situation which may arise. The approach is based on common sense: fixing the causes of a risk, the likelihood of it occurring is reduced, and by mitigating the consequences of a risk, the impact can be limited.

The ability to demonstrate long-term value is key to securing investment and data-based insights are critical to calculating climate change impacts and the efficacy of mitigation strategies over time.

Programme and project leaders will have a central role to play in sharing information about economic benefits in the future and ensuring sustainability matters are prioritised.

Government emphasis on sustainability within the National Infrastructure Strategy will send the right signal to the marketplace and give stakeholders the incentive needed to support the use of more sustainable materials and methodologies.

With the NIS in the pipeline, there is still time for the Government to map out a strategy that aims to support best practice and improve infrastructure resilience.  Getting this right will enable the UK construction industry to retain its world-leading reputation for delivering successful and sustainable infrastructure programmes for many years to come.

Jacqueline Hughes is a senior risk analyst at risk management consultancy, Equib. She specialises in advising organisations on how to manage risk when financing or delivering large-scale infrastructure programmes.

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