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Meeting the infrastructure challenge

A willingness to embrace change, integrate digital technologies – and most important of all – consult with the public: these are all key ingredients of a successful infrastructure project. The New Statesman speaks to Derek Holden of URS to find out more

 The government has announced plans to make major investments in transport infrastructure. What does the average taxpayer expect to get in return?

People want reliable, predictable journeys that take a reasonable time at an affordable cost – and they expect these measures to improve whenever their taxes are being spent. These expectations remain the same whether we are talking about rail, road or aviation. And of course people need to be able to travel without undue risk to their personal wellbeing.

Safety will always be the paramount concern for the general public, even if most people never give investment in safety any real thought. Safe outcomes are simply taken for granted. For example, who would stop to remark on how steady the Humber Bridge feels in the wind? Or who would pause to wonder what steps had been taken to enable a Eurostar train to travel so serenely at 186mph?

There is an unquestioned assumption that transport infrastructure has safety built in. And this assumption is right and just how it should be. We in the engineering industry focus on safety all the time, of course. There is nothing more important in our business. If you are not obsessed with removing danger, then you are in the wrong job. It defines everything we do. Many people only really notice infrastructure when it goes wrong. Perhaps a challenge for both government and the engineering industry is to help more people understand the extraordinary work that goes into planning and delivering transport infrastructure, and making sure it is safe, reliable and able to meet 21st century needs.

Why is it important to invest in new infrastructure? Why not just improve what we already have?

We need to do both, of course. The movement of goods from place to place is the foundation of most business. Business is done by people, who travel to work or need to meet to collaborate. And if they are not travelling for commerce, they are generally doing so in connection with leisure.

If we fail to adapt to the evolving demand for transportation, or if we don’t make use of new transport technologies, there will inevitably be a negative impact on the economy. The financial returns of every pound spent on infrastructure are huge. But the improvements in infrastructure, and the way people live, work and travel, are the greatest benefit of all.

What kind of new transport technologies are you thinking of?

Last week, I travelled to Norway and was able to jump on the Airport Express into Oslo without stopping to buy a ticket. Forget the palaver of searching around for a ticket office; you simply swipe your credit card across a reader on the platform. Register your card online and you’ll receive a receipt by email. And back at Heathrow Terminal 5, you can just swipe your parking ticket in a pod and it will take you to your car.

These are just two examples of how the digital revolution is starting to transform the way we use transport, just as it rewired the retail industry. The American Public Transportation Association is not given to reckless forecasts, but in a recent paper it predicted that future public transport projects “will be built around the smartphone”.

On the face of it, this seems like a strange claim. How can a box of tricks in your pocket provide the cornerstone of a new railway? But this revolution is real and is already happening.

We already see smartphones used to book tickets and hold boarding cards, to collect fares and to plan journeys, as traffic-aware satellite navigation devices, or as a means to monitor congestion or delays, allowing travellers to reroute or even switch modes of transport mid-journey. There are even apps that allow people to pool their cars.

Just imagine where all this is going. At the moment, people typically need to make a conscious effort to seek out, understand and employ new capabilities. But we can expect digital technologies – with innovations we probably can’t imagine – to become ever more seamlessly embedded into the way we get from A to B.

How seriously is this kind of change being taken by government?

Digitisation is seen as hugely important by government. There are already great successes in this area in the UK, such as the Smart Motorways initiative. High-tech signage and remote monitoring of traffic allows variable speed limits and judicious use of the hard shoulder, squeezing the best out of the available road capacity. There are also plans to manage roadworks better, making full use of hard shoulders and alternative routes. And there is a lot more of that to come from the Highways Agency.

Policymakers are deeply aware of how much more effective and cost-efficient it would be for the UK to bring together all the different strands of infrastructure, and if digital thinking were to be fully embedded throughout the entire planning and policy process.

What is the future direction of UK transport infrastructure?

Integration is the key word here. We will see more seamless transport where commuter trains link into bus networks and cycle lanes; where intercity railways are dovetailed into airport services. Where everything is joined up, providing maximum efficiency and environmentally friendly transport.

SNCF, the French railway operator, for example, has made much of this approach, ensuring that its rail timetable is fully integrated with other transport forms, from buses to the availability of cycle rental facilities. This approach is going to evolve, with car-sharing trends increasing rapidly, especially for commuting.

The rejuvenation of King’s Cross station in London is also indicative of future trends. The station has been transformed into a bright and pleasant space, full of busy restaurants and shops. It provides a great example of how ambitious redevelopment can dramatically improve the customer experience.

So, in terms of policymaking, what is the key to successful infrastructure?

It is vital to take a long-term, strategic, integrated approach. We need visionary, transformational schemes such as HS2 and Crossrail, combined with practical shovel-ready projects that upgrade and improve the conditions on our existing transport network.

It is also essential to consult, communicate and achieve buy-in from the public whenever major change is envisaged. We need only assess the range of reactions to HS2, or differing viewpoints on airport capacity, to see that infrastructure policy can provoke very strong reactions among those affected. Local communities will identify more closely with transport infrastructure if they are given a voice in the planning or approval stage.

By contrast, there is more experience of community-financed and managed infrastructure projects in the US. Across the Atlantic, there has long been a tradition of regionally financed projects funded by local taxes raised to meet the transport demand of the populace. Perhaps that is a concept we will see more of on these shores, with transport infrastructure influenced very strongly by the needs of the local community.

As citizens, we want transport options that make our lives simpler and easier. Where efforts are made to move people out of cars for congestion or environmental reasons, for example, we need alternatives to be phased in at the right time. An integrated approach will consider multiple modes of transport including pedestrianised zones, cycling facilities, metro networks, trams, buses, taxis, cars and planes. Effective links between services are just as important as employing the right tool for the job.

Derek Holden is director – infrastructure, Europe, Middle East and India at URS

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.