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11 September 2018

217: The politics of infrastructure has changed… for the worse

The announcement of Crossrail’s delay and cost overruns have been accompanied by ongoing media stories about similar issues with HS2. Such failures will undermine political and community support for infrastructure projects and something has to be done.

It has to be remembered that both projects built on the hope and optimism generated by the Olympics. Despite all the naysayers, the Olympics showed that the UK could manage and build projects on time and to budget. That impression is at risk of being decimated by the latest news. Optimism is on the decline.

It is particularly damaging because it eats away at the heart of the political support needed for such major projects to go ahead. If the politicians can’t trust the figures or timescales they are given then why should they back a scheme with public money?

There are more critical infrastructure projects coming the way of the Government all the time across sectors, not just in transport. But those other sectors could, quite unfairly, suffer just the same. So just because you are not involved in transport does not mean that the politics for your sector hasn’t changed as well.

That is to say nothing of the scepticism likely to be encountered when projects engage with local communities. Consultation can be challenging enough without communities feeling that they have a real basis on which to distrust what the experts are saying.

So what needs to happen?

  • Projects need to be open, frank and honest – there needs to be an ever greater emphasis on transparency. Communities want it and politicians will demand it. We all worry about the implications of delivering difficult news but it can be managed and explained, if planned. Avoiding an issue will simply make matters worse. Everything from initial engagement through to project post-mortems need to think open, not closed.
  • Know and understand the political concerns – the project may be of huge importance but unless it reflects the concerns of politicians and their agenda then it will fail to get any traction. This now means paying even more attention to the apparent failures in these projects. Even if you can speak nicely to the Department for Transport or the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, they still need to go to HM Treasury (and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority)… So projects need to appreciate that they have to be able to communicate with different audiences even if talking to the same overall body.
  • Address challenges up front – do not simply wait to be asked or let audiences, especially communities, force you into an admission but address them up front. However ill-judged you believe a question to be, the audience is always right and you need to be able to respond. But why put off the difficult challenges and give potential opportunities some room against you?
  • Appreciate the realities of the situation – all this is to say nothing, in the UK context, of the challenges that Brexit will bring. There are those already saying that spending on infrastructure will benefit and that we will need it to build the type of future economy that we want. That has, however, always been the case so Brexit does not bring an automatic change with it. All sides in the debate also realise that there will be economic challenges before we reach the sunny uplands. So the competition for infrastructure funding is likely to get a lot more challenging before it potentially gets better.
  • More vocal supporters – project supporters will need to be ever more vocal and be prepared to adopt a high profile, if needed. The supporter base also needs to reflect the key audiences for the project. Who will local communities listen to? Who do the politicians want to hear from? This all needs to be considered from the outset.

Unless projects appreciate the implications of Crossrail and possibly others, then they will not succeed. The implications are potentially significant and will last for years. But if they are reflected and considered then the chances of success will increase.

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