Since Victorian times, the UK has delivered huge infrastructure projects. But what lessons are being learned as Britain strives to build back better with schemes such as HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail?
It's impossible to discuss the future for projects like HS2 without referring to Crossrail. While public perception of delays and cost increases might have soured the end of the project, it remains a major achievement from which the UK's latest infrastructure plans can learn useful lessons.
Design and delivery
While François Pogu of Vinci Construction Grands Projets UK hails the scheme as a success, he acknowledges that design and delivery could have been better addressed, with the project being split into too many smaller projects. Whilst these may have been attractive to contractors, Pogu says it created too many interfaces that became difficult to manage. He also cites a lack of involvement at the design stage that made later changes difficult and time consuming.
Crossrail required a very specific skillset and was able to provide skills and jobs in civil engineering for professionals who are now working on the Tideway super sewer project.
What emerges from the Crossrail project is the sense that early involvement from smaller contractors would have significantly impacted project delivery instead of leaving the design to the larger constructors. Andrew Hodgkinson of Hewsons believes that smaller constructors can add a huge amount of value if involved from the early stages of a project.
Ultimately, those involved in Crossrail believe that the public will stop seeing the issues and appreciate the overall success of a major, and very ambitious, project.
Despite public perception, there are numerous examples of best practice that can be drawn from the Crossrail project. These include the Innovate18 programme designed to capture innovation across the project and now in use on the Thames Tideway. HS2 will also hope to see Innovate18 work carried forward.
But is the industry really maximising the knowledge and learning benefits of Crossrail and similar large scale infrastructure projects?
It's critical that knowledge is captured and shared between mega projects to maximise value for money. There is an argument that the industry should be capturing and sharing lessons learned so that no one has to reinvent the wheel. With taxpayers' money at stake, it's vital that the learning from these mega projects does not get lost.
The Covid-19 response has shown that skills, technology and knowledge can be shared by different sectors to create solutions to wide ranging problems. If construction can learn from the car industry about managing supply chains, what other innovations are being blocked by the inherent conservatism of the sector?
Boom and bust
The government has pledged to build back better after the Covid-19 pandemic. But critical to doing that effectively and securing jobs in civil engineering may be a more radical shift in approach to securing the pipeline of contracts to avoid the boom and bust of the past. With a raft of major projects coming onstream in the next 5 years, it's essential that lessons are learned to avoid repeating learning curves and instead allowing construction to invest in research and development in an efficient and planned way.