Leading independent construction, property and management consultancy, Rider Levett Bucknall’s National Head of Infrastructure, Andy Stamps, discusses the outlook for infrastructure in 2023.
When I wrote my hopes and predictions for 2022 almost a year ago, no one could have known that within those 12 months, we would have had three Prime Ministers, three Secretaries of State for Transport, three Rail Ministers, and four Construction Ministers. Or that inflation would be at its highest in 40 years, and fossil fuels would be subsidised by the government. It was always clear that 2022 was going to be a year of change, but with 2023 just around the corner, I encourage you to remember that with change comes opportunity.
Global challenges have buffeted us all since 2008, causing uncertainty to become the new norm. As built environment consultants, our role is increasingly to provide guidance during these turbulent economic and political times. By applying our lessons learned, we can help build the stability and confidence that is critical for development.
Although rising inflation is squeezing profits and causing the UK to enter a recession, we know it is likely to be relatively short-lived and shallow. Economists predict GDP to drop around 1% across 2023 but with growth expected to return in 2024. This contrasts with the pandemic, which saw a 19% drop and a bounce-back of 17% over a 12-month period. Many are labelling this a ‘jobs-rich recession’; despite rising unemployment, our industry has a skilled staff shortage of 900,000, and with 30% of the workforce over 50, we can change how we work to meet that demand.
Our budget is smaller so we must deliver more efficient and effective developments with greater social and environmental value for both public and private investors. We can support project delivery by using tools such as the Construction Playbook and Value Toolkit, which RLB has been involved in since its inception, and which underpin improved social, environment and economic outcomes.
And there is good news.
In the Autumn Statement, the Chancellor reiterated the government’s commitment to medium- and long-term infrastructure spending, including continued investment for High Speed 2, East West Rail and Sizewell C. The next tranche of ‘levelling up’ funding has also been safeguarded. Although these are welcome boosts that will have a positive impact in time, they should only be seen as a start and not a final solution.
The devolution of Suffolk, Norfolk and Cornwall, as well as the enhanced powers granted to the West Midlands and Greater Manchester Combined Authorities, will also give local people the power to decide where and how their money is spent. Over the past few years, the government has worked closely with local councils and combined authority mayors to coordinate local and national planning, and we have seen this first hand on projects such as Coventry’s Very Light Rail. These projects must, however, be supported by a national integrated transport strategy to provide cohesion. This unified approach will not only bring direction to those involved but will also bring much-needed confidence to investors in England.
A £22 billion commitment has been made through the Infrastructure Bank which will help drive economic growth across the country and accelerate a green industrial revolution in urban transportation connectivity. An example of where infrastructure is already supporting the green agenda while reflecting our changing work and lifestyles patterns, is Milton Keynes City Council’s plan to provide a fully integrated and accessible public transport system through “mobility as a service” (MaaS). Focusing on ‘first mile/last mile’ journeys, its target is to achieve a significant reduction in the use of private vehicles by integrating technologies such as autonomous and connected vehicles. This is an excellent example of how adversity can create opportunity for our industry.
And finally…I hope in 2023 we can become more like Birmingham City Council and the West Midlands Combined Authority! As a Midlander, I am bound to say this, but the response of the city and its wider region to host the Commonwealth Games at short notice has been a shining example of how infrastructure can transform people’s lives and prospects leaving a legacy to be proud of for generations to come.