The middle of a pandemic might seem like a strange time to publish a bold strategic initiative, but the U.K. government went ahead anyway in announcing its National Infrastructure Strategy—subtitled “Fairer, Faster, Greener.”
Acknowledged to be a hugely ambitious plan, the government says the whole of the U.K. will benefit, including what it claims will be a radical improvement in mobile coverage in rural areas, along with high-speed railways, super sewers and road tunnels under ancient landmarks. These complex and often controversial mega-projects could change the country forever, connecting people in ways unthinkable a few generations ago. And the task of delivering them is being placed squarely at the door of the country’s construction industry.
Dr. Ana Mijic, from the faculty of engineering at Imperial College London, says the national infrastructure strategy is “a great opportunity for us to redesign and build the infrastructure we need in a way that it really works with the environment. It will require a bit of mindset change, but we have lots of tools and skills that we can work with.”
Nick Smallwood, chief executive of the U.K.’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority, agrees. “I always refer to the national infrastructure strategy as a once-in-a-generation transformation. It’s a long-term commitment. And it quite literally is an ambition to build back the country. It’s backed by hundreds of billions of pounds.”
The National Infrastructure Strategy: A Significant Investment
Billions indeed. The U.K. is investing the highest levels of public funds since the late 1970s and has set up a new infrastructure bank to co-invest in projects across the country, alongside input from the private sector. Perhaps the biggest infrastructure undertaking is HS2, the high-speed rail line currently being built between London and the north of England. The 530-kilometre-long network is currently Europe’s largest infrastructure project, ultimately delivering 300 bridges, 70 viaducts and six new train stations.
Deemed essential in many quarters, the project has also attracted vociferous criticism from environmental groups and people whose homes and livelihoods will be affected by the construction. It’s also been dubbed the world’s most expensive railway, with cost estimates rocketing from an initial £31 billion in 2010 to almost £100 billion. And if you’re wanting to catch an HS2 train you’ll be in for a wait—the current projection for completion of phase one puts it somewhere between 2029 and 2033.
The Stonehenge Underpass
Meanwhile, a desire to provide better connectivity to the southwest of England has seen controversial plans drawn up to drive a 3.3km Stonehenge underpass costing nearly £2 billion. Supporters claim the Stonehenge underpass will reduce air, light and noise pollution around the world heritage site, but legal battles have played out over whether the project would cause irreparable damage to the landscape around Stonehenge.
The latest legal challenge to the Stonehenge underpass was successful, but the government and Highways England, still keen for the scheme to go ahead, merely said they would consider their options.
The Thames Tideway Project: Down in the Sewer
Back in London work is underway to address one of the capital’s perennial problems: sewage. Sewage in London typically flows through a system of Victorian-era tunnels to a series of treatment facilities, but when it rains the system overflows and raw waste spills into the Thames. To solve this, the city is constructing a 15 mile-long, 7-metre-wide underwater tunnel, called the Thames Tideway Project.
A huge undertaking, the idea is that when the existing system overflows, much of the sewage will be rerouted to the new tunnel up to 65 metres below ground. The Thames Tideway project, which is being paid for by customers’ water bills, is expected to prevent millions of tonnes of sewage from polluting the river. The U.K. is also investing in flood defence schemes across the country, prompted in no small part by spate of damaging floods in recent years.
Another urgent infrastructure challenge is getting the U.K.’s population reliable internet connectivity. The U.K.’s gigabit broadband coverage lags behind other countries, but providing the entire nation with high-speed broadband will require enough cabling to wrap around the Earth more than 10 times.
The government aims to get 85% of the U.K. gigabit-capable coverage by 2025, with 80% of the work expected to be undertaken by the private sector; the other 20% will be covered by the government, which is investing nearly £6 billion to address those harder-to-reach places.
A Digital Revolution?
Ministers have also been pushing for a digital revolution across the construction industry, which has been slower to adopt new technology than many would like. Big, complicated projects often take decades to complete, with lots of site visits, handovers, contracts and, of course, paperwork, but many hope the new infrastructure strategy might be just the push the sector needs to finally go fully digital.
The pandemic has certainly upended the way we all work, but it has also pushed the infrastructure sector to become more efficient, flexible and sustainable. With fewer people working on site, digital collaboration tools such as Bluebeam’s Revu have enabled construction on national infrastructure strategy projects to keep going, efficiently and with less reliance on paper documentation.
James Chambers, Bluebeam’s U.K. regional director, says the pandemic has now exposed this digital shift as being essential. “People can’t go back to doing things the old way,” he said. “The mere fact that we’ve seen projects continue through lockdown and through the pandemic in the last year and a half I think is evident that if they didn’t adopt new technologies and digital approaches, they wouldn’t been able to do any of those things.”
Building infrastructure is a tough job. It takes billions of pounds, along with decades of planning, construction and maintenance. But if it’s done properly it has the potential to better the lives of millions of people.
Check Out the Video
For more on the national infrastructure strategy, check out the exclusive online debate between industry experts, following the release of The B1M’s new documentary.
This virtual event delves deeper into the national infrastructure strategy, debating the main points of the documentary and hearing from our panel on the opportunities and issues raised.
The wide-ranging conversation covers how digital collaboration tools are playing a critical role in active infrastructure projects and also answers questions from the experts in an open Q&A.