Is new infrastructure truly driving improved outcomes for people and nature?

10th October 2022

Gerald Morgan
Head of Preconstruction – Construction Logistics


“The built environment is seen as a series of unconnected construction projects, divorced from the wider system and their explicit purpose to deliver services that improve the lives of people and the natural environment in which we all live”.

When reading this statement in the Transforming Infrastructure Performance publication it, once again, set me thinking about how our construction industry performs strategically and just what drives the decisions behind certain projects. My conclusions are mixed.

There are so many incredible projects, but the question is… do they all offer real social value or a better quality of life? Are they geared towards offering us a more sustainable future? Sadly, it appears these are the questions that our elected decision-makers too often ignore or consider an afterthought.

For me though, I am reminded of these questions wherever go. “Collect memories not things” was the advice on a poster I saw on the London underground recently. It is true, in this country most people already have enough stuff. We each have tons of it, our lofts are full of it; so are our garages, our wardrobes, and our charity shops. And our landfill sites?… They are untapped gold mines. The fact is we have too many shops, many of which are sitting empty.

What we do not have, is enough quality affordable housing or facilities that support well-being. Too many areas are deprived of enough of the right space to allow our communities to feel together and connected with the things we cherish, or feel connected with nature. This imbalance is prevalent throughout what the government and many developers think the people want.

So, what do we want?… A nice environment to live in that is warm, secure, clean, and does not cost the earth. And if we already have that, we want somewhere tranquil or fun; a place where social value and meaningful purpose are part of its foundations.

Whilst this thinking is perhaps somewhat utopian it is also fundamental in the pursuit of Net Zero because two things we really must do are to improve the efficiency and quality of affordable housing and move away from this idea of shopping – and the associated waste it generates – as a pastime.

The cost of energy right now is the highest it has ever been, it is a real worry for ordinary people. Of course, we can put another jumper on to keep warm, but isn’t that just code for ‘upgrading our insulation’? This must be a priority and when looking at the numbers it also makes simple financial sense. According to the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit by investing £1bn we could insulate 1 million homes taking them from an EPC rating of D to C – meeting the government target for 2035. Oh, and the savings in energy from doing so would save those households roughly £600 a year and therefore break even by 2025.

We also need to shift our focus away from the accumulation of stuff and onto a more experience-based economy. Therefore, what we need are spaces where people can come together and feel part of something good.

Take the tourism industry for example. What compels people to travel for leisure? Usually, other than social reasons, it is to visit interesting architectural sites such as The Eiffel Tower or Edinburgh Castle, geographical locations including beaches and mountains, or cultural sites for spiritual and artistic experiences. Occasionally, you will be lucky enough to encounter all these features in one magical place. That is where the future of infrastructure should be focussed.

As I work in the construction industry, I take a keen interest in what goes on, and all around me, I see incredible feats of engineering and stunning architectural wonders. These do exist in modern construction, just as much as say The Roman Colosseum.

Sadly, however, question marks hang over many projects based on what positive benefits they bring to society or nature. A simple question for anyone to ask is ‘Where in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs does a project sit?’ Take HS2 for instance, will it keep people warm in the winter? Provide clean water or keep sewage out of our rivers? Will the 1/2hr reduced journey time benefit anyone or anything to the value of £44bn+. In fact, will it even get people off the roads or be affordable?

I should point out here that I have nothing whatsoever against the teams working so hard on HS2 and I am sure their efforts will be stretching the boundaries of best practice at every juncture. What I am questioning is the project’s ultimate worth to society or nature.

This is a prime example of how government needs to align better with the needs of the people and our future.

£44bn is an awful lot of money, more than double the cost of Crossrail (which by adding 10% capacity to the tube network could be considered to far outweigh HS2) and to put it further into perspective Friends of the earth recently stated that for £3bn a year we could make all bus journeys free across the whole country. So, £41bn to repair our existing creaking infrastructure and a year’s free travel for everyone!

But even more pressing is the very real threats to life posed by climate change that desperately need attention. Like the state of our water provision and sewerage. It is quite outrageous that across England and Wales nearly 3bn of clean water is leaked every day (that’s the equivalent to 1,180 Olympic-sized swimming pools – and if you’ve ever used a hose to fill a kid’s paddling pool you’ll know that’s a lot of clean water!). This desperately needs repairing as summers like 2022 become more frequent. Who knows what that might cost, but I reckon £44bn might make a difference, and to reduce the number of sewage spills into rivers to less than 40 spills per year across the country would cost between £18bn and £110bn. Yes, you read that correctly reduced to ONLY 40 incidents of human waste in your rivers and on your beaches… you know those geographical locations that compel us to travel for leisure.

Throughout history, human civilisation has relied on infrastructure and architecture to drive improved outcomes for people. We have an incredibly good record of making beautiful yet functional buildings. We have the ability, the artistry, and the technology to build a better world. We just need to make sure each of the three pillars of sustainable development is given equal importance.



This article was originally published on LinkedIn.