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Civil engineers blame government for inadequacy of UK infrastructure

26 Jun 14 The nation’s local road network is at risk while management of flood management, energy and waste all need improving, according to a report out today from the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).

In fact, of all the UK’s infrastructure, only the water sector and the strategic transport network come up to scratch, but even here further investment is needed over the next five years to keep up with demand.

The ICE places no blame upon its own members whose function is to build and maintain infrastructure. The shortcomings are all the fault of government, the ICE says, for not giving enough money to infrastucture management. Engineers are exonerated.

Maintenance investment in local roads has declined by 11% in real terms from 2010/11 to 2014/15. This has left one-third of local roads in urgent need of attention.

Flood defences are not getting the money they need. Between 2015 and 2021, government will spend £1.4bn less on flood management than the Environment Agency’s estimated need.

And waste policy in England lacks direction and investment in infrastructure has suffered, the ICE says.

However, there has been overall improvement under the current coalition government, according to the ICE.

These are the findings of the ICE’s State of the Nation: Infrastructure 2014 report, which allocates a score of A to E for six broad categories of infrastructure, where A is ‘fit for the future’, B is ‘adequate for now’, C is ‘requires attention, D is ‘at risk’ and E means ‘unfit for purpose.

The scores for each category this year were:

  • Local transport: D minus “at risk” (2010: D)
  • Flood management: C minus “requires attention” (2010: C)
  • Energy:  C minus “requires attention” (2010: D)
  • Strategic Transport: B “adequate for now”  (2010: B)
  • Water: B “adequate for now” (2010: B)
  • Waste: C plus “requires attention”(2010 Grade: C)

The ICE said that more frequent extreme weather events will make it increasingly difficult to operate infrastructure networks and our expectations of availability will need to change.

It said there was a lack of resilience to flooding.  Its report said that resilience – including the 'domino effect' where the failure of one system can affect the operation of another – should be embedded into the criteria used for making decisions on infrastructure priorities.

However, it said that ultimately infrastructure will also fail in extreme events; it cannot be resilient to every eventuality. A shift in the public’s expectations on infrastructure availability is needed, according to the ICE. 

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Where there have been failings, the ICE sees little or no blame to be attached to the civil engineering profession. It is all the fault of politicians, it appears to believe. Sometimes we must expect infrastructure to fail, but that's not civil engineers' fault either, the ICE says.

Of the ICE's 10 recommendations for action, nine are for government improvement; one is for Environment Agency engineers to change their approach to flood defences. But even the inadequate management of flood defences is the government's fault, it says.

ICE vice president Keith Clarke, who chaired the panel that put the report together, said: “As the 2013/14 winter floods showed, unplanned interruptions in our networks are costly to society and the economy. They happen because we are trying to run all services at all times, and are deemed unacceptable as the public expect a certain level of service. Government ultimately bears the risk for the resulting impact.

“It is becoming clear that extreme weather events will become more frequent, and it is time that factors such as availability, resilience and the ‘domino effect’ across the networks when one network fails – as we saw recently when our flood defences were overwhelmed and this in turn disrupted transport, energy, water and waste networks – are rooted into the criteria used to make decisions on which projects go ahead so new infrastructure is more ‘future proofed’.

“But, importantly, we must all recognise that our infrastructure cannot be resilient to everything and it will become more difficult to run all services in all conditions – it will also not be cost effective.  Funding will always be constrained as there are only two sources – tax and user charging – both ultimately falling on the consumer. The balance between the two is a choice for the government of the day, but irrespective of where it comes from, both are constrained resources and must be used efficiently.

“Clearly there are some difficult decisions ahead regarding just how resilient the UK should be, and also what networks can and should operate 24/7 in what conditions. We can then plan more effectively – avoiding costly unplanned disruptions – and adapt. Management of the public’s expectations on availability during adverse conditions will need to form a key part of this process. 

“The onus is on government to make these choices for public sector infrastructure, and it must also build on its efforts to provide the right regulatory incentives to improve resilience within private sector infrastructure.” he added.

ICE recommendations

On strategic decision making and leadership, government should:

  1. Expand the criteria used as a basis for making decisions on priority infrastructure projects to reflect major future challenges– criteria should include resilience, availability, the pathway to a low carbon economy and better acknowledge ‘interdependencies’ across networks – or how one sector impacts on another.
  2. Be prepared to make choices regarding the levels of resilience in the UK’s infrastructure networks and the appropriate levels of service/availability – and work with industry to manage public expectation.
  3. Ensure the right regulatory environment exists to incentivise private infrastructure operators to build resilience into infrastructure.
  4. Be appropriately resourced to make and implement decisions on key issues affecting the UK’s resilience or competitiveness, such as aviation capacity.
  5. Provide more clarity, certainty and transparency for potential investors through the regularly published National Infrastructure Plan project pipeline – by including more detail on investable projects, their status, planning approval, ownership structure and revenue streams. 

On energy, local transport and flood management sectors:

  1. The Environment Agency and lead local flood authorities should implement a ‘holistic approach’ to flood management, using a wider range of measures in addition to conventional flood defences – including building the physical resilience of communities by making property and infrastructure more resistant.
  2. Government should provide the longer term certainty needed to improve flood resilience by committing to a long term capital and maintenance programme for flood management that protects funding beyond the current five year cycle.
  3. Government should enact the secondary legislation to implement electricity market reform by the end of this parliament (March 2015), establishing long-term investor confidence and entrenching cross-party support for electricity decarbonisation.
  4. Government should extend devolved transport powers and funding through the creation of more powerful, fully integrated transport authorities in city regions.
  5. Government and local authorities must establish a more ambitious joint programme to clear the road maintenance backlog, and commit to a more cost-effective planned, preventative maintenance regime.

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