HS2 fires demand for project leadership upgrade


Matthew Vickerstaff speaks at Future Cities Forum 'Infrastructure 2020' at Herbert Smith Freehills

The head of the government's project finance profession, Matthew Vickerstaff (who is Deputy CEO at the Infrastructure & Projects Authority) joined a panel discussion at our 'Infrastructure 2020' event at Herbert Smith Freehills.

Speaking on the morning of the HS2 project commitment announcement, Matthew spoke about how project delivery needs to improve. He said:

'Is it right we are given a hard time? Yes. In terms of project delivery we had the nadir of 2012 with Crossrail and indecision and political backdrop around HS2. For the IPA which is responsible for project delivery across government we are not suggesting the system is broken, rather that it needs to improve. Our vision for 2020 is a longer term view and it is about improving project delivery across government.

'Our priorities are setting up projects for success, building a delivery capability within government and creating market confidence. This includes ensuring that our supply chain and contractors, with the right engineers, are in place with the right skills. Lastly and importantly, we measure project performance.

'Dyan Crowther of HS1 gave me a perfect segway into this last point, in her introduction on the economic case for high speed rail - why would you do HS2 - and the impact that HS1 has had on the business and tourism economy of Kent, and the success of St Pancras International. However - reflecting on HS2 - as delivery body, it's very difficult when you don't have consensus and commitment. Now I think we will see a change in government support for the project because a decision has been made. Having spent a lot of time with HS2, how do you hire the right people and how do you convince your suppliers to invest? These are huge challenges when you have uncertainty. It's great now that a decision has been made and we will see final details and terms shortly.'

'From the IPA's perspective Vision 2020 is all about building and improving delivery. This is about capacity, innovation and modern methods of construction. It's not just in government but across the industry. It's about improving knowledge and know-how. We have an internationally renowned project leadership academy at Said Business School at Oxford and supported by Cranfield School of Management. This about making sure our leaders have the best skills to lead our projects. We need to improve skills of the 10,000 project professionals across government and to accredit them so that they are equipped. HS2 is one of the largest and most complex projects in the world and it's taken over from Crossrail which is the largest engineering project in Europe.

When asked about the news announcement of moving forward with a Celtic Bridge Matthew said:

'It's a great time to be in infrastructure with the government announcing an infrastructure revolution with £100 billion of investment. We are working on the next infrastructure strategy to respond to the National Infrastructure Assessment, Net Zero 2050, an energy white paper and the Infrastructure Finance Review as well. It's an exciting time and very different from six months ago. This government has a mandate to push forward an infrastructure revolution and it is aiming to level up the economy.

'The Celtic Bridge is interesting. We have a somewhat light hearted theoretical risk assessment project focussed on the Celtic Bridge at the IPA. Perhaps there will be a time when the right benefits are created. I think that it is one of the examples of setting up 'projects for success' where ministers are encouraged not to announce projects unless they are fully planned and costed.

On a question about the future of high speed broad band direct to premises to support the growth of the UK, Matthew responded:

'The government policy has not changed on this. It's 'inside out' with the market working on the inside, and the government helping across rural areas. There has been talk about 2033 dates for this but it is very tough to bring these forward. When you get down to negotiations with local landowners and leases, there are lots of complexities and then policy areas - like what to do with BT and turning the copper off?

'We need to pace this at the right level as the money tree is not inexhaustible. It's about service level and cost. It's important for universities and some local authorities but not everyone wants to pay for 400 meg downloads.'

'We are looking at training at levels below project directors but this area needs investment' he said in response to KPMG major projects partner Lisa Kelvey's question from the forum audience, about lack of training at lower levels. 'There is a need for the intelligent client. There will also be a problem with finding qualified welders, and we do need to think through the impact of Brexit on this. However we think we have capacity for current projects, although there are issues around supply chains (across steel and concrete) in the future as we move to Net Zero 2050.'

Future Cities Forum would like to thank Matthew Vickerstaff for his valuable contribution to our 'Infrastructure 2020' debate.

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