The changing culture of social infrastructure development

The public sector is by far the construction industry’s largest client.

National government and local authorities account for nearly 40% of sector spending and invest around £46bn in building projects and infrastructure every year.

However, the 2008 economic crisis brought about a culture change in the way public bodies approach infrastructure development, and how they work with the construction industry.

With budgets being slashed every year, public bodies are not only looking for ways to save money, but also to maximise their assets and get the most value from these projects. But this can’t be achieved at the expense of quality, design and the end user.

Maximising assets

Since the economic downturn, public-sector bodies have been hit hard financially. Cuts in funding have been dramatic, while development and investment has also dried up.

The combined effect is that it’s become increasingly important for local authorities to maximise the value of their land and assets, using them to generate funds and stimulate economic growth. For instance, by regenerating assets or developing land into offices or housing, this provides rental income as a reliable and long-term source of funding to support the delivery of services.

Value for money

One of the ways public bodies are looking to make the most of their assets is by achieving the maximum value for money from their infrastructure projects. And this involves taking a more long-term approach to the construction process.

Until recently, the prevailing view was that best value was achieved by contracting projects out at the lowest price. However, the economic climate – which prompted numerous studies and reports on social infrastructure – have brought about a change in culture. Now, the overriding driver is producing infrastructure that’s fit for purpose and provides value for the end user over its lifetime.

But value for money in social infrastructure is not only about delivering a project on time and to cost. It must also contribute to the environment, deliver a range of wider social and economic benefits and be able to accommodate future uses.

In this sense, buildings must have a positive impact on the community as well as providing a structurally sound, safe and sustainable resource.

The 2012 London Olympics is often held up a guide to what can be achieved by public bodies. Not only were stadium, accommodation and infrastructure projects completed on time and under budget, but they fulfilled long-term priorities. The project was outstanding on a number of levels, including safety and sustainability and in terms of the social benefits it provided.

Working collaboratively with contractors

There’s also greater emphasis placed on the nature of the client-contractor relationship.

A key priority for public infrastructure projects is collaborative working, which means contractors must be capable of integrating into the wider construction team. And increasingly, public bodies are looking for construction partners who fit their culture.

Evidence shows that by working together at the earliest opportunity, an integrated team can achieve the best solution – this applies to design, buildability, environmental performance and sustainability.

That said, public bodies recognise that achieving this won’t be easy. It’s no secret that the construction industry is highly fragmented due to several tiers of subcontracting firms that exist below the main contractor, as well as designers and other consultants. And this poses a number of challenges which can only be overcome by developing a more collaborative process of working.

Adding value for end user

This change in focus means more and more emphasis is being placed on how infrastructure benefits the end user and other stakeholders.

This means building schools that motivate children to learn, and hospitals that help make people well, but also creating resources with distinctive character, that are safe, accessible, pleasant to use and inspiring. Buildings must also benefit the people work within them – those who deliver the services – by boosting staff recruitment, retention and motivation, for example.

Consequently, public bodies are dedicating more time to the projects briefs, and asking themselves why they need the building or infrastructure, and what’s the best way of achieving it. This means using the expertise of contractors at an earlier stage, rather than prescribing the types of buildings required, which can reduce the long-term value of the asset.

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