Infrastructure: Making our lives more liveable

The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) brought together partners of INFRA 2018, Northern Ireland’s Year of Infrastructure, to discuss the theme of enhancing the public’s appreciation of the value of infrastructure. 

This year marks the 200th anniversary of ICE, which was established in 1818 by three students who met weekly in a café in London to assist and develop each other in their careers, as they worked on their projects.

“This is at the heart of what ICE is about today. Much like many other professional associations, ICE is about sharing knowledge so that everyone can get better at what they do,” explains Richard Kirk.

“Over the years, we have taken on a role of encouraging the next generation into civil engineering. We do that through working alongside schools and we also have an apprenticeship called Work+ which starts after GCSE and runs all the way to master’s degree level. We’re trying to enhance the opportunities to enter into civil engineering. That is very much based upon the Skills Barometer findings which indicate that, over the next 10 years, civil engineering will be second only to computer science in terms of undersupply in Northern Ireland.”

To celebrate the 200th anniversary, ICE set out to show the public how civil engineers have transformed lives. There are a number of different ways in which they are doing this:

• the Invisible Superheroes campaign at Belfast City Airport;

• a partnership with Girl Guiding Ulster;

• a partnership with Bridges to Prosperity charity; and

• participation in an eight-part UTV series called Ulster Giants.

“We realised it would be remiss of civil engineers to claim infrastructure as their own. There is a much wider group of professionals involved in delivering it and this is how the Year of Infrastructure came about. This is very much about engaging the public in terms of the difference we have made in their lives, but we wanted to encourage others to get involved as well,” he notes.

Acknowledging that the public perception of infrastructure can feel quite removed, Kirk emphasises: “We know that it makes a massive impact on all our lives, whether it’s economic or social infrastructure. What we wanted to do is bring infrastructure closer to home by showing people the connection they have with infrastructure. It’s an attempt to show the wider public that infrastructure makes their lives work.”

Chris Conway is Group Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company and its operating subsidiaries (Translink). Chris was previously Managing Director Tata Steel Distribution Ireland and previously Vice President Operations for Nortel Networks in Europe. He’s a Chartered Company Director, Fellow of the Institute of Directors and a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers. Chris is Chairperson of NI-CO (Northern Ireland Co-operation Overseas), member of the Board of Trustees of Young Enterprise NI, member of CBI Northern Ireland Council and Business in the Community Advisory Board.

Ashleen Feeney is Director and Head of Business Development, KPMG in Northern Ireland. Ashleen is also an infrastructure specialist with a passion for bridging Northern Ireland’s infrastructure gap.  Ashleen is currently advising on the emerging proposition for a Belfast Region City Deal.  Ashleen is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants Ireland, a Member of the Institute of Directors (IoD) and has recently completed two 3-year terms on IoD NI Committee.

Nuala Gallagher is Director of City Centre Development, Belfast City Council. Nuala took up the role in Belfast in June 2016. A registered architect and urban designer she has worked in urban development internationally for 20 years. Prior to Belfast, Nuala worked at the London Borough of Newham, heading up the Regeneration team on diverse projects across the borough. Before this, Nuala worked in New York City, leading on sustainable and inclusive development including strategic land assembly.

Randal Gilbert is the Head of Asset Management at NIE Networks and was recently behind drafting NIE Network’s Investing for the Future plan. His previous roles within the organisation include Investment Strategy Manager, Manager Programme Delivery and Plant and Technical Manager. He is a chartered electrical engineer and has an MSc in Corporate Leadership from Napier University and an MSc in Advanced Manufacturing Technology Design and Management from Queen’s University Belfast.

Paul Harper is Director of Asset Delivery at Northern Ireland Water. Paul, a chartered civil engineer, is a water industry expert with some 35 years’ experience, primarily in the UK. Paul’s previous role was Jacobs Water Asset Management Lead in the UK and he has worked for a range of water companies in UK and Ireland.  Paul previously worked with NI Water’s asset management and engineering teams in both a consulting and contracting capacity.

Richard Kirk is the Regional Director of the Institution of Civil Engineers and has led the NI Year of Infrastructure 2018 which is a collaborative campaign to show the public that infrastructure has transformed our lives. He is a Fellow of ICE, Chartered Manager and holds a Master of Business Administration. He is the Chair of ClimateNI, a member of the W5 Redevelopment Advisory Group, Chair of the NI Construction Group in 2017 and was a Non-Executive Director of Colleges NI from 2014-17.

Drains and cranes: How do we ensure we deliver the right infrastructure to support our lives?

Ashleen Feeney

We don’t have a clear long-term vision for infrastructure in Northern Ireland. One thing I would like to see over the next 18 months, is the mapping of a clear vision out to 2050 and beyond. The reality is that we have a lot of tough choices to make in prioritising infrastructure investment. Do we fund healthcare for the boomers and mobility for the millennials? Do we prioritise better transport to help those with jobs or social infrastructure to help those without? To make sound decisions, we require better data, more sophisticated analytics and much more reliable future projections. 

Nuala Gallagher

The Belfast Agenda has set out big ambitions for the city, including 66,000 new residents and 46,000 new jobs by 2035. To achieve this, improving infrastructure, in its broadest sense, is critical. Delivering the right infrastructure will require working with partners collectively and ensuring a delivery timeframe in line with the growth strategies that are coming forward. It will also require an analysis of existing infrastructure and assessing how we can tie in areas socially, economically and physically.

Randal Gilbert

From an energy perspective, what we perceive to be the right infrastructure is influenced by a number of external drivers such as public perception and needs. Consumers are generally outcomes-focussed, assessing the service delivered by infrastructure rather than the infrastructure itself. Consumer behaviour is changing due to government policy-driven decarbonisation, technological advances and the emergence of the ‘prosumer’ (a citizen who both produces and consumes energy). As this behaviour changes, so too does the requirements of the network and we must be aware, and attempt to predict, various trends to ensure that the network remains fit for purpose. Also, undoubtedly, the various infrastructures being provided in the public arena could benefit from improved co-ordination. I think it’s important that we create room to explore synergies for optimised infrastructure planning. 

Paul Harper

One area in which we have put a lot of focus is on the use of existing assets and ensuring the reuse and repurposing of those assets for better customer outcomes through innovation. Digital plays a large part in the adaptation of assets and infrastructure requirements will be defined through analysis of demographics and assessing future needs. A lot of public infrastructure is competing for the same pot of money and there is a requirement to not only spend that allocation wisely but also to ensure current infrastructure is being used efficiently.

Chris Conway

We all have strategic plans for our own organisation but we compete for the same pot of money with the predictable outcome that we all get a small portion of what we need for asset management and enhancement. Project Ireland 2040 has worked through the phasing of infrastructure in Ireland for the next 20 years

The Programme for Government sets out the outcome of connecting people and opportunities through our infrastructure and I think it can be the basis of an infrastructure plan for Northern Ireland, linking with other outcomes. I don’t think we necessarily need to wait for an Executive to be back in place, we can get on and do that now. Making sure firstly, that we maintain our assets appropriately and then looking at enhancements. And how do we best sequence investment in those enhancements to get the right outcomes. A long-term plan is also more attractive to potential investors. 

Richard Kirk

There is a massive challenge in anticipating our spatial growth and ensuring the right infrastructure exists to allow that growth to come about. Highlighting the importance of, and starting to develop long-term investment planning, will be a key part of our Year of Infrastructure 2018. It’s a shame that the Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland has yet to be released 18 months after it was completed and in the absence of the Assembly we need to move on this.

What role does planning have in delivering the right infrastructure in the right place?

Nuala Gallagher

Everyone has talked about a long-term plan for the city. I think it is essential and it is getting to that point. When planning powers came across to councils in 2015, that set out the need to produce the local development plan, to get a planning strategy in place and to co-ordinate between all the various bodies how that is going to work.

The Local Development Plan (LPD) will set out the spatial planning growth for the city and then in a wider context, it’s about supporting this with transport, the utilities, digital and placemaking to instil confidence in the investment sector that you’re able to deliver. We are working closely with Department for Infrastructure and other agencies to coordinate and formulate a phased plan for delivery. The planning powers that have been devolved to councils, include both forward planning role which encompasses the local development plan and development control, both go hand-in to set out a direction of travel for growth.

Chris Conway

Planning is critical to delivering the right infrastructure and the spatial plan. I think the big challenge for us is the lead time for planning. What developers want is certainty and when we’re engaging with developers they need a clear understanding of when something is going to happen. We need to look at the whole process and try expediate it in terms of getting an outcome. That will help to provide more certainty around the overall plan for Northern Ireland.

Nuala Gallagher

Absolutely. Belfast City Council are working hard to get planning in a position whereby responses are delivered quickly. When the LPD is adopted there will be more certainty as to what the controls are and that will help. Planning can be examined and streamlined, but the delivery mechanism is equally important. Planning is regularly viewed as a magic bullet or a real impediment, there are many schemes which are consented and then don’t come forward, so another critical element is ensuring that we have a delivery strategy.

Paul Harper

There is ‘big P’ planning and there is ‘small p’ planning. Focusing on the planning in and around Belfast and development there, I know that without investment in the Living with Water Programme, that planning cannot be supported. Without the investment, what are you going to connect to if everything is at capacity? We have to be careful to ensure that by facilitating one initiative, we do not create a problem elsewhere.

There are conflicting priorities around different types of infrastructure, but it’s also across geography. We won’t be funded to do everything we need to do, so there needs to be prioritisation. That may cause conflict with other infrastructure plans unless we bring this out into the open and have a conversation around the funding and what we can actually achieve. Otherwise we could constrain growth.

Ashleen Feeney

It’s bringing it back to funding of ‘enabling’ infrastructure. That is paramount, because if we don’t urgently invest in our existing enabling infrastructure in terms of our water, waste water and electricity networks, it will be a big barrier to economic growth and attracting private investment. In terms of infrastructure investment prioritisation, that’s where we now need to put the spotlight. We need to engage in frank discussion and accept that future social infrastructure and private developer-backed proposals will not secure planning approval, unless there is urgent investment in both existing and new ‘enabling’ infrastructure.

Randal Gilbert

Effective planning is important to ensure that we optimise the utilisation of our exiting infrastructure and develop the infrastructure to cater for immediate and long-term needs.

How do we fund the investment in infrastructure? Can we afford not to invest?

Richard Kirk

Northern Ireland has a very traditional funding mechanism for infrastructure, largely due to the small size of the market. There aren’t significant enough projects to attract large scale pension fund investment, for example, and we don’t have many alternative roads for the introduction of a tolling mechanism. Recent figures released by the Department of Finance (DoF) show that Northern Ireland is spending about £1,900 per capita on infrastructure compared to £4,000 in Scotland. It’s clear we are not actually turning enough of our spend in Northern Ireland into infrastructure. Infrastructure that enables many other aspects of our lives. However, there are other resource channels we can consider within the region as a means of raising revenue such as domestic water charges and congestion charging.

Ashleen Feeney

It is fair to say, there has been much aversion across Northern Ireland government to the use of alternative financing models such as PPP/PF2. When faced with ongoing budgetary constraints, in terms of what we get through The Barnett Formula coupled with Northern Ireland’s ever-increasing infrastructure investment deficit, we need to revisit the role of private capital in the delivery of our public infrastructure. However, I do stress we need to ensure rigorous and robust feasibility testing is undertaken in terms of testing the suitability of projects for delivery using alternative models, to ensure that we get long-term value for money for the taxpayer.

Government need to think more critically about the balance between who pays and who benefits from infrastructure development. There needs to be a much clearer understanding of the full value of infrastructure delivered. New technologies and analytics will undoubtedly help decision-makers find the balance between promoting broader economic benefits and improving upward social mobility. Politicians need to engage in sober discussions about who pays for infrastructure (always a politically charged debate). In some cases the need to serve overall ‘public good’ may lead to continued misalignment as the ‘haves’ carry some of the costs for the ‘have nots’.

Chris Conway

There are lessons being learnt from private finance and there are a lot more creative models out there now. We’ve got to try and find a way to make these work for Northern Ireland because we are too small a region to generate enough funding through the public sector on its own. The other area we need to look at is the structural funds. The EU has always recognised that smaller regions have greater difficulty in funding big infrastructure projects themselves. Northern Ireland has benefited from these and realising whether the same approach is going to be taken through Westminster after Brexit is a real challenge for us.

Randal Gilbert

NIE Networks was privatised in 1993. Connection charges and on average 21 per cent of the customer bill funds our infrastructure activities. An important thing for us is the inclusion of uncertainty mechanisms within our regulated framework and plans to allow for us to adapt to changing needs. We can’t afford not to invest because of our licence obligations to provide a safe, secure and efficient network; but questions that we are constantly grappling with are what is the right level of investment and how much does the current customer pay to invest for the future?

Nuala Gallagher

We absolutely can’t afford not to invest otherwise we will impede growth. It is essential we invest and invest smarter. The public sector needs to take a more commercial approach with regards to its assets and how it invests collectively with the private sector. The Belfast City Region deal is a good example of a collaborative approach to collective planning across six council areas and seeking out funding models for those priorities identified. I think there is also a personal responsibility on us all in regard to the sustainability of our core infrastructure, its management and how we pay for that maintenance.

Richard Kirk

Within that conversation there needs to be a sensitivity analysis. Northern Ireland’s economy is heavily based on consumer spending and adding any additional burden to that spending potential, especially those low-income families, needs to be fully considered.

Paul Harper

Sustainability is important both in a green and a financial context. The two are interconnected. We can look to other cities as examples where they seek not to put additional pressures on the existing infrastructure but to be smarter about how they do this. It comes back to asset management; a smarter approach can mean achieving a whole lot more.

How do we deliver infrastructure in a digital world?

Paul Harper

We can’t afford to not fund digital innovation and transformation. We now have huge amounts of data so the challenge is how we actually use it. In the case of Northern Ireland Water, we are moving into a programme of predictive modelling for asset maintenance in order to achieve flexibility. Industry has a large role to play in this as well and we must look at how we work with those who are making investments.

Richard Kirk

We published a report last year called Digital Transformation, which looked at three areas: the resilience of infrastructure, how it can enable greater productivity in the economy and behaviours. Behaviours are key, we need to learn how to work in a digital way. The construction industry is trapped within a vicious cycle. It operates on very low profit margins and therefore has a very high-risk culture, which subsequently means lack of innovation and investment in R&D. The industry is highly traditional and needs to be digitised to ensure that it can deliver the infrastructure of the future.

Chris Conway

Transport will be transformed by technology and innovation over the next decade. Autonomous vehicles are at the heart of this, but it’s much wider than that. In England there is greater emphasis on testing the vehicles and the technology as they see this as great opportunity from an economic perspective. It’s not something that I see happening in Northern Ireland yet, so it’s certainly an area that we could start to look at.

The technology leaps are coming and if you consider electric vehicles as an example, we’re quite far behind in our investments in this area in terms of use by utility operators and public transport. Likewise, the number of charging points we have in Belfast suggests that we have some way to go. We need to show leadership in this area. The majority of our road infrastructure will have to be adapted to cope with the influx of autonomous vehicles and we haven’t even started the process of conceptualising how that infrastructure will look.

Randal Gilbert

There are several aspects to the digital economy. From an organisational point of view, we are all being driven towards the digital delivery model. We have an extensive IT plan over the next six years with £32 million being invested in over 50 projects including a programme to provide digital devices to our staff in the field to ensure a two-way flow of information.

We’re also becoming more data rich organisations with modern equipment having its own diagnostics supplying operational information directly from the field which is utilised in our investment decision-making tools. It’s a huge game-changer for us.

Nuala Gallagher

By 2020, the volume of global internet traffic is expected to be 95 times that of 2005, and connected devices will outnumber the global population by nearly seven to one. In the UK, fixed internet traffic is set to double every two years, while mobile data traffic is set to increase further at a rate of 25 per cent to 42 per cent per year. Digital infrastructure must be able to support this rapid increase in traffic, providing coverage with sufficient capacity to ensure data can flow at the volume, speed and reliability required to meet the demands of modern life and enable growth in industry.

Broadband and mobile must be treated as the fourth utility, with everyone benefiting from improved connectivity.

How can we help the public better understand the importance of infrastructure?

Richard Kirk

By helping to explain what infrastructure does rather than what it is. In a recent survey of 1,000 people as part of our Year of Infrastructure, 35 per cent didn’t know what the term meant. One way of doing this is through our rates letter, which is unfortunately worded when it highlights the ‘vital contribution’ our rates makes to the various services. The reality is that the money paid through rates is a very small percentage of the overall cost of making these services work and we need to be more honest with the public in highlighting that.

Chris Conway

I think there needs to be a communication exercise aimed at bringing the cost of infrastructure home to people. When the cost of infrastructure is visible, people become much more aware of it, and often, opt for better sustainability. For example, what brought around greater use and greater investment in public transport in London was congestion charging. People could physically see their costs and it caused them to make better decisions.

Paul Harper

A major problem for us is the assumption that water is free and to tackle this we have numerous education-focussed initiatives and programmes to improve the understanding of what we do. Another issue for us is that not a lot of our service is visible and so as a ‘silent service’ we are harder to promote. However, modernisation has helped in this regard and we have used opportunities like social media to help the public understand the level of infrastructure involved in our operations.

Randal Gilbert

The focus has got to be on infrastructure outcomes and benefits because this is what’s important to the public. From NIE Network’s point of view, the public are probably more interested that they have a safe and reliable energy supply and access to the grid rather than an interest in quantity of overhead lines that we refurbish in a year. Customer interaction and engagement is also key. We need to better understand what service the customer expects from a particular infrastructure and what they are willing to pay
for it.

Nuala Gallagher

I agree that it’s a job of increasing the visibility of what you are paying for but also around demystifying the term infrastructure. If we are building for the future then we need to be bringing people along and helping them make a connection between the current level of need, the environmental sustainability of that need and the impact this is having on their pockets. A big part of this will be engaging with the younger generation through the likes of education and encouraging them to be part of the conversation of on future infrastructure investment.

Ashleen Feeney

Currently more than half of Northern Ireland’s population is under the age of 40 and I think that we need to keep a very succinct message: if we don’t invest in our infrastructure for the future, huge opportunities will be forgone as home-grown talent will seek opportunities outside of Northern Ireland. To retain and attract back this talent and ensure Northern Ireland remains a sufficiently attractive place to live, work, settle and prosper, we need to smartly invest in effective infrastructure, to assist deliver not just more jobs, but better jobs, particularly in Northern Ireland’s high growth sectors, because if we don’t, our competitive advantage in a global marketplace will be compromised.

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