Ed Evans, Director of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association Wales calls for greater collaboration across the infrastructure sector in Wales with a clear focus on “value” and for governments in Wales and Westminster to work together in Wales’ interest.
As the dust settles from the Christmas celebrations and politicians, decision makers and those who hold the purse strings in Wales and beyond return to work (or it may still be at home for some), we look forward to 2022. As a Welsh construction sector, we stand ready to work with all those who have a stake in tackling the significant challenges ahead of us and to deliver the infrastructure Wales needs into the future. And the old saying that “the only constant is change” has never been truer!
But the concept of change is nothing new for civil engineers. We’ve always been at the forefront of significant social changes over the centuries. We were at the forefront of the industrial revolution, not just providing the infrastructure needed to power this revolution but, also, building the social infrastructure to support growing populations with clean water and better homes and improving public health with better sanitation. As society faces the challenges of climate change we will continue to be at the forefront of transforming society, across Wales, the UK and globally, for the future.
We’re already protecting more people and communities from increasing flood risk caused by climate change and increasingly unstable weather patterns. We’ll be called upon to address the increasing instability of Wales’ numerous coal tips too. We’re providing the infrastructure for more of our energy to be generated from renewable sources such as wind, solar, tidal, marine and hydro. We’re ensuring that people receive reliable, plentiful and safe water supplies from our reservoirs and treatment facilities. We’re developing a circular economy that helps to protect scarce natural resources by recycling and reusing construction materials. We’re at the forefront of putting in the communications infrastructure that we now need more than ever as we continue to deal with the impacts of the pandemic. We’re providing the social infrastructure our people need for schools, hospitals and homes. And we will continue to deliver transportation systems that allow us all to live our lives better and in a way that sustains our planet.
But we can’t do this on our own and we can’t do it without considerable changes across our sector too!
The past year has demonstrated that our infrastructure and the construction sector that delivers it, form a cornerstone of our communities and local economies. And when we look at the challenges we all face from climate change, the pandemic and the uncertain economic conditions ahead of us, this sector has a key role to play in supporting Welsh society. But these challenges won’t be addressed by the usual “transactional, lowest price approaches” that we’re sadly all too familiar with. We need the public sector in Wales to work with the private sector, at all levels, in a truly collaborative and supportive way to do this with a clear focus on “value”. Experiences over the last 2 years shows that when it works it works really well and we deliver far more value. But when it goes badly, it can go very badly! There’s really no excuse for letting it go badly though.
Looking forward to 2022 there are immediate challenges for businesses across our sector from dealing with the uncertainty of inflationary pressures on labour and materials, which has already led to increasing tender costs often exceeding historic (and unamended) client budgets. This is exacerbated by the often limited availability of both labour and materials as a result of global demand, ongoing pandemic impacts and the added uncertainties of Brexit on imports. These immediate issues are really focusing the minds of our businesses. But wherever there are challenges there are opportunities and there are also areas where, as a whole sector, we need to adapt. We need to be far more open to the benefits of digitisation and artificial intelligence in increasing innovation and productivity. And of course, if we don’t adapt our businesses to reflect the growing importance of decarbonisation then we will be failing not just our clients and workforces but Welsh society more generally. The need to decarbonise our sector is becoming evermore pressing, not just what we build but how we build. It’s clear that those businesses which fail to respond will struggle to survive. The removal of the red diesel rebate is an example of how blunt the carrot and stick solution can be to effect change so let’s get ahead of the curve when decarbonising!
And we can’t get away from politics can we? When it comes to politics it’s fair to say that we’ve had enough of being the political football kicked between both ends of the M4 (and the A470?) with no winners when the final whistle is blown, just a lot of very beleaguered players remaining! After a year of uncertainty for everyone, what we need to see is an interworking relationship between the Welsh Government, UK Government and Local Government which puts the Welsh infrastructure sector front and centre of future recovery as we head into our ‘new normal’, contributing towards meeting Wales’ future needs when it comes to infrastructure, economic growth, social value and reducing emissions.
In Wales, during the last few Senedd terms, the construction sector’s voice has been heard much more loudly by the Welsh Government, in part from the creation of the Welsh Construction Forum which is chaired by the Deputy Minister for Climate Change. This forum allows the needs of the sector to be considered, proposals developed and solutions taken forward with the support of public and private sectors. The Programme for Action developed by Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru also offers a number of infrastructure related proposals, particularly in terms of tackling climate change and the housing crisis. Again, if these are to be delivered successfully the approach must be collaborative and focused on value.
At the same time, the UK Government have set out their aspirations when it comes to our post-Brexit and post-Covid future and the role they see for infrastructure in it. Its ‘Plan for Wales’ announced a few months ago by the Secretary of State for Wales would “build back better and greener” with a focus in Wales on digital infrastructure, financial backing for green industry and supporting jobs and growth across Wales with the Levelling Up Fund (replacing EU funding) playing a key part in this.
Of course, any positive announcement of support, from either Government, for our sector is welcomed with open arms, as long as they come to fruition (hopefully this means more projects such as the Global Rail Centre of Excellence in the Dulas Valley). But as a sector scarred by broken promises, from both Governments, forgive us for not wanting to be caught slap bang in the middle of another M4/Wylfa/Llanbedr fiasco (insert your own cancelled infrastructure related aside here!). And so far “levelling up” remains merely a tiresome “buzzword” for politicians (remember “Big Society”) – we need to see the money!
So, what do we need, as businesses, to realise a better future for infrastructure in Wales?
In the short term, we need to see decisive action taken, one way or another, on some of those projects that have been stewing for quite some time :
- Despite political posturing from Westminster it seems that an M4 relief road is “dead in the water”, but that means moving ahead in implementing the Burns report recommendations as quickly as possible.
- We need clarity from the current “roads review” on the rules for building new roads – cars aren’t going away and simply saying no to road schemes is not helpful (particularly in rural areas)! And if not new roads then let’s see the investment being pumped in to maintaining, upgrading and adapting our existing highway assets.
- Rail in Wales remains the “cinderella” sector. Whilst many Welsh contractors are helping to deliver HS2 the lack of a fair “Barnett consequential” for Wales (as opposed to Scotland and NI) still rankles. Just think what we could invest in Wales if we received the fair equivalent of £5bn? We could transform rail infrastructure in Wales.
- In terms of energy, will we see Wylfa Newydd happen alongside a suite of mini reactors? Or what about tidal energy. The UK Government, despite recommending a pilot at Swansea, went cold on the idea. But the tidal potential of Wales is immense so let’s see some leadership from Westminster and/or Wales.
- The water sector is another area where the impacts of climate change are being felt and new approaches particularly around “offline” water treatment offers opportunities for civil engineers to use their skills more broadly. This is in addition to the more creative thinking around “sweating” the existing assets.
- We’re already seeing investment in flood risk management measures but let’s see a more coherent plan in addressing a whole suite of climate change mitigation plans including the remediation and making safe of coal tips.
- And with the pandemic forcing a rethink of how we do business, remotely and directly, let’s have clarity on how communities can reshape themselves alongside greater investment in 4G and 5G infrastructure across the whole of Wales.
As a sector we need to know where the future lies, what our role is and how we can move ahead with the work that is in the best interest of Wales, our economy, our environment and our future generations.
In the longer term, if we are to support businesses to respond effectively to the challenges ahead, what we need is a project pipeline of agreed, costed and time-framed public sector construction projects to support and grow the construction sector in Wales so that it fully contributes to our wellbeing as a nation. The Welsh Government have just published their new Welsh Infrastructure Investment Plan (WIIP) incorporating the medium-term investment plans of all public sector bodies to offer a 3-5 year programme of work, funding proposals & certainty. Aspirational? Maybe? But we need all public sector bodies to match this by publishing and regularly updating their short term, 12-24 month, work programmes so that businesses can plan with certainty and keep people in employment, take on trainees and apprentices and deliver social value within their communities. And with the WIIP, published just before Christmas, with a clear emphasis on carbon and climate change, businesses need to account for carbon in everything they do – but they need to know that public sector construction clients are taking it seriously too!
We also need to see the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales (NICW) take a far more prominent role in shaping what infrastructure we will need for the future so that businesses can plan and invest for the future with confidence. The industry campaigned for, and welcomed, the creation of the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales, yet, to date, we haven’t seen it deliver for the sector and for Wales. We have offered our support to the new Chair so watch this space!
For those seeking to work with the public sector the procurement process has become the bane of our lives! We need a streamlined public sector procurement process, with cost-effective bidding processes, that supports our foundational economy, is attractive to SMEs, proportionate to the investment, and minimises bureaucracy and complexity. We say this every year, don’t we? But there is a chance to do it now given legislative changes at Westminster and Cardiff. The big challenge will be changing the culture of those working across Wales’ public sector when it comes to applying whatever procurement regulations come in to place! Keep it simple and proportionate – and don’t ask the same questions time and time again!
We need a streamlined and proportionate Planning system that supports, manages, and encourages appropriate development across Wales without impeding investment. This will be very challenging given the loss of resources from Wales’ local planning authorities but we mustn’t let this impede essential developments otherwise we’ll all grind to a halt and that won’t be good for future generations in Wales. It doesn’t mean reducing standards it just means sorting out the “log jam” within public bodies and getting on with the job. The SUDS/SABS process needs urgent review as it’s currently dysfunctional and stifling progress despite its good intentions. The issue of phosphates in watercourses is far from clear and the recent decision to delay implementation of flood risk maps shows a willingness by government to listen but needs urgent action to improve the accuracy of the maps.
And, of course, we need to ensure that we have a Welsh construction industry where the whole supply chain is paid fairly, in full and on time for the work carried out. We’ve already done our bit via the Welsh Construction Forum, by producing a 12-step Project Bank Account guidebook (Welsh language : https://bit.ly/3uyQ8kO, English Language : https://bit.ly/3B6RJ3I) to make it as easy as possible to apply these accounts to projects and safeguard payments. Let’s face it, it’s no more than online banking so use them!
Get these things right and we’ll be in a far better position to support more people into this industry, giving more people a better chance in life. Give us certainty of work and we’ll give certainty of employment. Give us greater visibility of workload and we’ll deliver more social value. The new construction and built environment qualifications at GCSE, A-level and foundation apprentice level being launched this year by Qualifications Wales offer a perfect opportunity for us all to support the new Welsh curriculum and get more people into employment.
And, last but not least, we need a commitment from the public sector to work with the private sector to decarbonise our infrastructure, new and existing, and supporting us all to decarbonise our business operations. Our joint public/private sector report Decarbonising Our Infrastructure /Datgarboneiddio Ein Seilwaith, published last year, gives us a great starting point and action plan to move forward.
The construction sector has kept the country and economy going during an extremely difficult period for us all, providing certainty and jobs at a time of uncertainty. As we look to the future it’s also well placed to help us meet the greatest challenge of our time too, climate change. All we’re looking for in return is a willingness from the public sector to work with us to tackle this challenge, together.
Director, Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) Wales