Leading the recovery in Wales – a mix of old and new!

There is nothing normal about these times, whether that be the new normal or the old normal. But many working in the civil engineering sector are looking for a mix of the old and the new. In the second part of a two part article, Ed Evans of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) points to the elements of the ‘New Normal’ which need to thought about and enacted.

The economic data released earlier this month, with its rise in unemployment, makes sobering reading. But within these monthly reports has also been some good news (if you look hard enough) and that is that the construction sector is actually the most resilient one and is the fastest growing to get us out of recession. This reality is one that is recognised by both governments that affect us in the UK. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove spoke at the end of June about a programme of infrastructure improvements for the UK and how they could mirror the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in using public works to lift the economy from a recession that had already begun.

Here in Wales, the Welsh Government too has been proactive in highlighting the importance of construction as not just a tool for economic resilience but a tool for a better Wales. Through the Construction Forum and our jointly agreed “Building a better Wales” approach, the civil engineering sector, along with our other construction partners, has been able to agree a way forward with the Welsh Government to help challenge recession and economic downturn. But in doing so, we have all been conscious that we can’t just keep doing more of the same. “Building a better Wales” is exactly that: a vision for a better Wales. And one that embraces our future generations.

In short, the future can’t just be a duplication of the past. Covid forces change – or at least the pace of change – and there is nothing new in this. We have rethought and rebuilt our infrastructure in the past when driven by public health crises, we’ve just collectively seemed to have forgotten that it’s anything other than economic development that drives change. We’ve almost become trapped in a mindset that it’s only the economy that drives infrastructure investment. In reality, if you look at some of the major innovations in infrastructure they’ve been health related. The introduction of sewerage systems and improved water treatment and distribution facilities in Victorian times was all about tackling the public health challenges of cholera and other diseases.

And in the 21st Century one of our major health concerns in the West, pre-pandemic anyway, is obesity. Whilst medical interventions are needed, in reality, it will be infrastructure improvements that will drive and support long lasting change. And the same is true as we plan for a post-Covid future. Uncannily, last year we, along with colleagues from the public and private sectors, published a report titled “Healthy and Active Lives: the role of infrastructure”. The drivers for the report were numerous: increasingly difficult funding challenges across the public sector following almost a decade of austerity measures, an ageing population, mounting pressures on the NHS and increased demands for infrastructure to encourage and allow us to lead healthier and more active lives.

The report, which looked at the challenges and opportunities for the infrastructure sector, was launched in the Senedd hosted by Jenny Rathbone MS and where we were joined by the Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport, Lee Waters, MS,  and a number of Members of the Senedd from across the political spectrum as well as stakeholders and partners from the sector and beyond. Little did we know at that time that within a few months we would be hit by a global pandemic with the potential to drastically transform the way we live our lives.

All of which has increased the potential of our industry to be at the forefront of embracing lifestyle changes and enabling active travel. The days of simply thinking about transport infrastructure in terms of road building alone are over. Infrastructure has a really important part to play in promoting healthy and active lives. In fact, I’d argue that the sector’s role is crucial. So many health and wellbeing issues can be traced to our transport networks and the way we conduct our daily lives. Our focus on car use, especially in urban areas, at the expense of public transport and active modes of travel has led to rising volumes of traffic, increased air and noise pollution, safety concerns, challenges for walkers and cyclists, community disconnect and social isolation for many. And our response to the pandemic has shown what we can do particularly in terms of our use of digital technology to aid communication and engagement – move the data around rather than the people!

This doesn’t let either government off the hook in terms of big and bold new projects either – it’s time for them to start actually delivering and ending the picture of Wales as ‘the land of the artist’s impression’, as a shrewd commentator put it. A good example is the Global Centre for Rail Excellence proposal for Onllwyn in the Dulais Valley. It would combine physical infrastructure and digital data driven capability to make it unique in the UK and Europe, and one of the most advanced facilities of its type in the world. It will include a 6.9km, 110mph rolling stock test oval with overhead line electrification, a tunnel for high pressure testing, a 4.5km high tonnage infrastructure test loop, and world-leading research and development, education and training facilities. This ‘shovel-ready’ project that will have an immediate and lasting impact on both the economy of Wales and the wider UK rail industry. This will help to secure and grow high value jobs in an area that has suffered more than its fair share of difficult times. The Welsh Government deserves credit for developing such a forward looking and compelling business case and CECA is calling on the UK Government to agree to its funding.

We’re also looking to the UK Government to ensure the Williams Review of rail delivers for Wales. This long awaited report has the potential to deliver new rail infrastructure in Wales and the UK and unlock capacity through relieving congestion and enhancing regional connectivity. Transport for Wales have already taken responsibility for the Core Valley Lines assets which would provide a template for further rail devolution to Wales with fair funding. This should underpin transport strategies across the north, middle and south of Wales and take pressure off other forms of transportation. But it also has to address what a future rail network would look like from the perspective of hard-wiring elements like building up domestic supply chains, and crucially prioritising rail electrification for efficiency and low-carbon journeys. Transport enhancements have to contribute to carbon reduction.

And then of course there’s the subject of energy. Wales is one of the few nations in the world that produces far more energy, from different sources, than it consumes – and that’s still the case even after the demise of coal power. With much of this coming from renewable sources we’re in an ideal position to support other nations in meeting their climate change obligations as well as our own. But we can go further. Whatever your views on nuclear power, and it is a highly emotive subject, it does deliver low carbon energy even if its longer term decommissioning processes don’t sit well with our commitment to our future generations. But, let’s face it, we’re only scratching the surface when it comes to the energy sources off our coast. The tidal power dream shouldn’t die with the Swansea Tidal Lagoon! But if we’re to capitalise on the value of these energy sources we need to focus on the transmission and storage of this energy as well as its generation. The fact that we have so much hydro resource in Wales’ rural areas but are unable to exploit it because of weaknesses in the transmission network is madness. But could advances in storage technology provide the solutions for our more remote communities to be more energy self-sustaining, generating and using the energy closer to its source? And could this lead to new industries and greater employment for these communities?

The future of construction is also more than creating physical assets. As Director of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association Wales, I deal with contracting businesses who are crying out for good people to join their businesses. And it’s not easy to attract people and get them involved. Partly because young people have such a limited awareness of the civil engineering sector and partly because their perceptions of the industry are not great. But once they get involved they quickly get hooked. And don’t be fooled by the image, this industry is well suited to women as well as men. Which is why one of the most exciting developments for the civil engineering sector right now is in the field of qualifications. Qualifications Wales are currently developing in partnership with civil engineering employers to support young people into a career in “Construction and the Built Environment”. Very soon learners in Wales will be able to pursue GCSE, A-level and foundation level “construction specific” qualifications. Making sure this happens with industry input is one of my top priorities.

All of which leads me to conclude we need not just to be bold and to think differently, but to actually do differently in order that we really do “build a better Wales”. The pandemic has shown that when we really do need and want to effect changes we can do so quickly. We must all take responsibility for making the changes. And we must invest in our infrastructure to support us to make those long lasting changes.

This article was prepared by Ed Evans, Director of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association Wales and published in the Western Mail on 2nd November 2020