Investing in infrastructure: the process for sustainable change

Adam Cambridge | 09 Apr 2015 | Comments

As the UK emerges from the financial crisis, the arguments for prioritising infrastructure needs that support economic growth, over those specifically aimed at delivering more sustainable benefit, will be justifiable to many. One area where this is particularly evident is the value placed on flood risk management, as alleviation schemes must currently demonstrate two to four times as much benefit to every pound invested in a transport scheme, which will be primarily justified on the basis that it supports economic growth.

Carlisle Flooding 2005
Carlisle flooding 2005

Climate change and its impact on weather however, is becoming a very real threat, and in recent years we have seen a number of flood events that have led to significant economic loss. The 2007 floods are estimated to have cost £3.2 billion [source 1 – PDF] and the clear up costs of the recent 2013 / 2014 winter floods totalled approximately £1 billion [source 2 – PDF]. Dealing with these events is then a significant cost, which is set to increase in the future due to the effects of climate change. So, my question is, why is such a comparatively low value placed on more sustainable benefits and what can be done to change people’s perceptions and priorities?

Perhaps we shouldn’t be looking at flood risk in silo. If we consider it through the lens of infrastructure that is linked to economic growth, perhaps flood resilience would be placed higher on the agenda. Following the 2013 / 2014 winter floods, the task of making the transport network resilient to extreme weather was described by Department for Transport (DfT) as “a big challenge” [source 3 PDF]. However, the risk was always present, it just took a flood event to bring the issue to the forefront of people’s mind and question whether investment was sufficient. So the challenge is then not to make the roads resilient, but to link investments and consider them in the context of an urban area that has wider needs.

Looking at investment in a wider and more integrated way would allow multi-beneficial schemes to be developed, but not necessarily implemented or adopted, because of concerns over ownership and responsibilities. A simple solution to this is to include the community as part of the solution, as most people have an interest in the area that they live in. However, the metrics used to justify sustainable investment are often not related to that individual and/or family, which quite clearly makes adoption more difficult. For example, the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) has found in a recent survey into climate change that:

"73 per cent of people want world leaders to agree a global deal and 66 per cent think action must happen now”, but “just 40 per cent of people recognise the impact of climate change on their lifestyle."

This certainly raises some questions as to how we’re promoting, or seeking buy-in, for a ‘future proofed city’ because it’s clear that images of weather chaos do not seem to be the mechanism for engaging the individual, and/or family, that ultimately are central to enabling sustainable change.

So, what are society’s top priorities?

A difficult question, as it will vary with time and as social attitudes change, but if we consider this in the context of our own lives most answers would probably boil down to having a happy family life, good health, and a well-paid job. This highlights that engineers and planners promoting sustainable water management in urban areas need to provide the traditional metrics, as well as the benefits to family wellbeing, health (by a reduction in NHS medical costs for example), and personal equity through incentivisation (reduction in taxes / bills). If done, this would link individuals and/or families to communities and allow government investments to be considered in a holistic manner, as well as more actively seek investment from the private sector.

What’s the next step?

To achieve sustainable change the investment business cases that are developed for infrastructure need to be expanded to not only identify multiple benefits, but link the benefits to individuals and communities. In the current economic climate these business cases must relate the benefits to infrastructure investment that is deemed to stimulate economic growth, as these are the solutions that will be implemented in the end.

[1] EA (2010) – The costs of the summer 2007 floods in England (Project: SC070039/R1)

[2] RIBA (2014) – Building a Better Britain: A vision for the next government – Flooding

[3] Department for Transport (2014) Transport Resilience Review: A review of the resilience of the transport network to extreme weather events

[4] DECC (2014) – Climate Change Survey: Populus Data Solutions