1. Governance
February 29, 2016updated 30 Jul 2021 1:59pm

Infrastructure, integration, and what Gabon can teach cities about planning for the future

By Rachel Holdsworth

When you ask people what improvement they’d make to a city, quite often they’ll point to a specific infrastructure project. Build that rail line, they’ll say. Build that bridge.

Not Ailie MacAdam, regional manager for infrastructure in Europe and Africa at engineering-company Bechtel. She’d rather people just talked to each other more.

“If I had a magic wand, what I’d do is get the right people talking to each other about the right things, and get a collaborative, integrated view of what the priorities are and then go and do them,” she says. “We don’t want to build the wrong thing, and we don’t know what the right thing is until we all start talking.”

It’s during an interview about the future of London that this topic comes up: suddenly, MacAdam goes off on a tangent and starts talking about a project Bechtel recently did in Gabon, creating an infrastructure masterplan for the whole country. With the firm’s help, the government formed a new agency to design and procure a supply chain, then manage the contractors to build the roads, schools, hospitals, universities, houses and so on.

But working out what to build meant “we spent a lot of time with the stakeholders identifying what’s important,” MacAdam continues. “And then you have to decide things like: is power or transportation more important and why? And in order to make those kind of decisions you’ve got to know how much the various projects cost and how long they’re going to take.”

These, she adds, are exactly the kind of questions that cities need to ask when working on their own infrastructure plans. “What is the most successful outcome? How much does improved transportation from inner to outer London help? Should the hospitals be outside London? All of that will have a certain power capability so how do you get the power?

“All of that is just so integrated. You need a real joined-up conversation in order to properly build out these cities.”

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You’d think this would be common sense. Yet in London, the city authorities have spent public money on the inexplicable cable car, which serves no obvious need. More is earmarked for the Garden Bridge, the main justification for which appears to be “but look how pretty”. Crossrail, meanwhile, will see £15bn invested in the capital’s rail network, without any apparent thought for how it could help with the capital’s housing crisis.

Thankfully, the more integrated approach that MacAdam outlines is one that’s recently been gaining more traction. A lot of the knock-on benefits of Crossrail and the renovation of St Pancras station – the housing, businesses and recreation – were not fully considered before those projects began. MacAdam thinks those lessons will be better applied for Crossrail 2. Indeed, in TfL’s efforts to promote the benefits of that project, the effect it will have on housing supply in the Lea Valley tends to come up rather a lot.

In the same way, the extension of the London Overground to Barking Riverside is now talked of as the key to unlocking new homes in east London; while the Northern Powerhouse agenda is in large part an effort to think about transport, housing and economic development as an integrated whole.

Of course, joined-up thinking is easier when it comes to planning new projects from scratch, or our when you’re working in a country that doesn’t already have several hundred years of infrastructure history baked in. But it’s nonetheless important to make sure we’re getting the right project, and getting the most value out of it, when dealing with a busy, crowded, already heavily developed country like Britain.

MacAdam suggests these types of conversations should be managed by mayors and local authorities, and that, if they’re to be taken seriously, devolution of finance-raising and planning powers need to play a role. I’d add the local community into the discussions, and MacAdam understandably also wants people like her in the mix.

“Conversations with the supply chain are an important part of the collaboration,” she says. “It makes the plan robust and deliverable if you engage with the people who are going to build it when you’re developing it. It also helps us understand what we need to do to our businesses from an innovation point of view, what type of skills we need.

“The more line of sight we get,” she adds, “the more chance we have of adapting our businesses to be able to respond to whatever the plan is.” Perhaps the same goes for city governments, too.

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