Aneeka Barmi discusses what new legislative priorities could mean for HS2 and levelling-up activities.
The Queen’s Speech outlined the UK government’s legislative programme for the upcoming year. The focus was national recovery from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. The role of infrastructure delivery in the recovery was recognised, with clear commitments for investment, short-term jobs and long-term growth.
Announcement of legislative powers to progress the ‘western leg’ of HS2 Phase 2B, connecting Crewe to Manchester, was welcomed. Not just by myself - a slightly biased Skanska Costain STRABAG Joint Venture (SCS JV) employee on Phase One of the scheme! - but likely by the 30,000 people and 2,000 British businesses that will be employed by the scheme at its peak.
This bill will mean ‘on the ground’ delivery of Phase 2B can truly begin; positive endorsement for a scheme that will connect millions of people, upgrade the nation’s transport network and prioritise low-carbon transportation.
While an important milestone, the remainder of Phase 2B connecting Birmingham to Leeds awaits similar backing. Delivery programmes can often become constrained by timescales associated with land acquisition, procurement and site mobilisation at the start of a project.
As this legislation makes its way through Parliament, continuous and prompt delivery of the integrated route must be supported. This will enable efficiencies and benefits to be realised during both delivery and operation phases of the complete HS2 route, as well as Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR). HS2 will provide 50% of the infrastructure for NPR; a project designed to transform the rail network in the north of England.
Encouragingly, the Queen’s Speech recognised that improving existing processes can be equally conductive to positive transformation. The Planning Bill will modernise our current systems with simpler frameworks, enabling those on the ground to deliver environmental and commercial opportunities more promptly. This will also support delivery of the UK’s ambitious net zero target. While efficiencies are encouraging, the importance of public consultation, as many major infrastructure projects currently undertake from conception to completion, should not be forgotten.
Similarly, the Procurement Bill will make public sector procurement more accessible for new entrants, spreading specialist skills and economic opportunity throughout the UK. At least 60% of HS2’s supply chain will be formed of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). On the ground, this has led to diverse and innovative approaches being offered to some of the complex engineering challenges the scheme offers.
As this policy is developed, Parliament must of course ensure this is supported by fair procurement and ethical practices. From experience, civil engineers also have a responsibility to ensure that those we welcome into our infrastructure projects are supported on their learning curves.
While the Queen’s Speech gave rise to much optimism, it recognised that there is work to do in addressing socio-economic inequalities in the UK. Lost learning hours of young people during the pandemic, racial and ethnic disparities and decades of investment centred in economic strongholds rather than devolved throughout the UK; the commitment to ‘level up’ is more important than ever. I truly believe those on the ground delivering infrastructure projects are well placed to do this.
My experience on the A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon improvement scheme supports this. The £1.5bn upgrade not only relieved congestion and improved safety, it also supported the Port of Felixstowe with its increase in cargo traffic post-Brexit.
In addition, the improvement scheme supported Cambridgeshire’s rapid employment growth with an increase in residential and office developments along the 21-mile route. On a smaller but equally meaningful scale, many of us acted as STEM ambassadors to encourage careers in engineering, in areas where uptake of further education was below the national average. The impacts of infrastructure delivery by those on the ground can be far reaching.
I know that I became a civil engineer for the same reason many become politicians; a determination to serve the needs of society. Is there more we could be doing to align our goals? How engaged are you with the political frameworks that govern the projects you work in?