In the summer of 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson invoked the spirit of the 1930s US President Franklin D Roosevelt with his ‘New Deal for Britain’. Boris pledged to “build back better…[and] faster” and “unleash the potential of the whole UK”. Joseph Moore, Account Manager at Copper Consultancy, examines the role of transport corridors in this vision and argues that communities must not be overlooked in our bid to ‘build, build, build’.

Led by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Project Speed (Infrastructure Delivery Taskforce) aims to bring forward proposals to deliver the government’s public investment projects more strategically and efficiently.

The time required to develop, design and deliver major transport corridor projects is now coming under greater scrutiny. That is no surprise. The construction sector’s ability to develop the Nightingale Hospitals in 2020 at record speed provided an indication of what is possible when delivery times are slashed and contractors, design teams, and supply chain partners collaborate more closely.

Time poor, story rich

While there is no question that bureaucracy and red tape play a part in slowing down the speed at which projects are delivered, there are risks to public acceptance and delivery of corridor projects when looking to squeeze a programme.

The success of highways schemes such as the A66 Northern Trans-Pennine project, Lower Thames Crossing and A303 Stonehenge (referenced in the National Infrastructure Strategy) depend on the buy-in of the communities and stakeholders affected by them. That buy-in depends on their understanding not only of the local implications of the project, but the wider project need and benefits. Not only that, but to generate the engagement projects seek at statutory consultation, they must tell the wider story at the earliest possible opportunity.

A drumbeat of activity to dispel development myths and to sell project benefits will go a long way in getting individuals, businesses and other sensitive stakeholders on board with the vision.

Such ‘big picture storytelling’ however, should not come at the expense of local concerns and opinions. While the national narrative is important, local people must feel that their needs and priorities are heard and not lost in the cacophony of noise surrounding the ‘levelling up’ of the whole of the UK.

This approach is reinforced by central Government in its ‘Planning for the Future’ white paper of 2020. However, this approach is not reflected in its infrastructure papers. Of the 30 times that the term ‘communities’ is mentioned in the National Infrastructure Strategy, only once does the document refer to taking “the needs of the communities they serve into account” (page 74).

As an industry, we can point to highways projects that go above and beyond in listening to individuals – and the corresponding rewards they reap in terms of programme, budget, and reputation. We need to learn from such projects and ensure this becomes the norm and that we take the time to inform communities and provide them with the fullest possible picture throughout the entirety of a project.

Engage early, engage often

Copper Consultancy has worked on a broad range of major transport corridor projects at all stages of their lifecycle. This experience has taught us that the best engagement with local communities is that which is built on long-standing relationships formed over time. Engagement should not start and end at consultation. It is never too early for a project team to begin building their understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by local people and how a project such as the creation of a new bypass or the dualling of a major arterial route could impact stakeholders.

Continuous outreach with communities is crucial to the ongoing success and perceptions of a project. Individuals should feel listened to beyond statutory consultation. This could take the form of pre-construction engagement to explain how works might impact residents and businesses and what will be done to mitigate these challenges.

By remaining in touch with communities throughout each of the Project Control Framework (PCF) stages, grassroot advocacy can be fostered.

“It’s one thing blowing your own trumpet, but when influential community leaders are selling the benefits of your scheme, it really helps boost credibility and creates a positive buzz within the local community and the media,” says Josh Hodder, project manager for National Highways’ A30 Chiverton to Carland Cross Scheme.

This ongoing engagement ensures that communities are provided with the fullest possible picture, helping them to shape their views and providing them with the means of responding meaningfully as and when consultation does arise.

From a delivery perspective, this means projects should already understand what objections they could be facing at the close of consultation. All of this means fewer surprises, enabling teams to plan effectively and deliver at pace when the need for this has never been greater.

Build, Build, Build

The development of infrastructure is key to the UK’s bounce-back in the wake of COVID-19. The government has committed to delivering an ‘infrastructure revolution’ with highways upgrades a fundamental strand of this pledge. High levels of investment from central government are admirable, and indeed, greatly needed in our bid to level up the country.

But ‘Build, Build, Build,’ should not come at the expense of local people’s wants and needs. To truly champion communities and deliver for them we must step back, listen, and understand what they require. By engaging early, we can assuage concerns and build buy-in, but this also requires us to fully articulate the project vision to enable stakeholders to respond meaningfully to our projects.

With the onset of RIS3 just four years away, now is an opportune time to consider how we might look to work with local communities and become their champions. This means engaging early and often, telling the local story, and demonstrating the benefits of the project in a way that goes beyond the national narrative.

For more information on how Copper Consultancy can support your transport corridor projects, please contact: