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Infrastructure, construction and energy forum - report part three

Above: Chamberlain Square - centrepiece of MEPC's Paradise urban renewal development in Birmingham

In the third part of Future Cities Forum's 'Infrastructure, construction and energy' discussion held in London recently at the offices of leading law firm RPC, developer MEPC / Federated Hermes, London Councils, architects HOK and Grimshaw with engineers Buro Happold, joined the debate on best approaches to infrastructure planning, supporting the skills agenda and practical sustainability measures to cut carbon and save energy.

There were questions on:

How will a 'truncated' HS2 frustrate investment appetite not only in Manchester but also Birmingham?

Is the UK willing to invest in vital infrastructure skills training?

Is there a more systemised way for London's boroughs to attract private investment for infrastructure projects?

How can recycling technologies - seen at the Olympic Park - be used for new housing and water provision in Cambridgeshire?

How can a 'fabric first' approach help the UK to achieve net zero goals?

Ross Fittall, MEPC's Commercial Development Director overseeing the Paradise major regeneration project

-£750 million worth of construction over 10 years - in central Birmingham, commented on the positive investment in HS2 tempered by the recent bankruptcy of the City Council:

'We have a close relationship with Birmingham City Council as part of the scheme is joint venture with the council on delivering the infrastructure. We are inherently interested in what happens there, but as I keep being told 'a city council cannot be bankrupt'! However this does affect confidence, but it is an issue affecting many councils around the country but Birmingham grabbed the headlines by being first into special measures and also because it is the biggest local authority in Europe.

'From an investment point of view, as we are owned by Federated Hermes, we invest pension scheme money so we can look long term. Paradise is well established as a scheme, but we work often with other partners, and it's the confidence from international investors that is important. HS2 is one part of that as it is a huge infrastructure project, which is still being built. The importance (of confidence in the city) is also there for spin-offs of companies who might be considering relocating and investing.

When asked whether putting so much focus on office investment post-pandemic was wise, Ross responded:

'We don't think there is a risk in the development of offices at Paradise. There was talk during Covid-19 that the 'office is dead' but that has not been the case, it's been the opposite. There is no question that firms are taking less space but there is a desire for high quality environments. It's the high quality space that is being taken up. Firms want to be part of a high-quality cluster, and all the amenities that come with well designed public realm are important to them. This is essential when you are trying to recruit and retain high quality talent.

On skills support and training in the region and whether he believed the UK would get its skills sector in shape, Ross said:

'Sustainable long term development is the crux of what we do. Our local term in Birmingham used to be part of Argent so place-making and communities is at the heart of the business approach too, as it was with Brindley Place in Birmingham and at King's Cross in London. There is a corporate objective which we sign up to but we also believe in it. Birmingham is one one of the youngest cities in Europe, and all that skills investment is a pipe-line we see running through the companies that are our occupiers. We are working with the Construction Skills Alliance and also with our occupiers creating ties through apprenticeships.

The industry skills theme was taken up by Chris Patience and Nick Hawkes of Grimshaw, who have been working on HS2 London to Birmingham (where Grimshaw is designing the new Curzon Street station among other projects) and on the successful Northern Line extension project for Transport for London. Nick was asked whether gaps in infrastructure project commitments meant losing hard-won skills.

'Maintaining a steady pipe-line of projects is very beneficial for private companies, as you can recycle skills as well as bringing new people in. Having to constantly re-arrange and chop and change on projects does not help that continuity.'

Chris Patience commented on importing skills from Spain and France:

'In my experience of working on HS2 in the Chilterns area, with the Align JV which is largely the (French) company Bouygues with the engineers Jacobs. They have been bringing in many people from Europe as France and Spain have built hundreds of miles of high speed railway lines so they have the expertise.

It's a very bespoke railway with a very specific set of technical requirements. Fastest train at 320 km per hour in the world with a train frequency approaching that of the tube in London. Effectively by stopping the project at Birmingham all of those skills will move elsewhere, mostly abroad. Continuity is vital to these sorts of projects.

According to recent news from Align JV:

'Construction of the giant network of tunnels for HS2 has now passed the halfway point, marking a significant milestone for Britain’s new high-speed line. HS2, which is at peak construction, supporting more than 31,000 jobs, has now completed excavation of two of its five twin-bore tunnels, with a further two well underway.

'It underlines the scale of the progress being made on the line which is being constructed at 350 separate worksites between London and the West Midlands. In total, high-speed trains will travel through 27.4 miles of twin-bore tunnels – or almost a fifth of the 140-mile route. This means that HS2’s fleet of tunnel boring machines (TBMs) are excavating and building a total of 54.8 miles of tunnel.'

Chris was asked how the new Waterloo Master-plan would deliver connectivity for communities, for the Southbank cultural offer as well as the growing life sciences offer in Lambeth by St Thomas' Hospital:

'About a month ago, we delivered the master-plan vision but it's important to say there is not committed secured funding yet. The point rather has been to identify a shopping list of initiatives which could be implemented at different times.'

Nick commented that the master-plan had been designed so that when commercial opportunities present themselves:

'you can buy that bit now but with a view to adding to it in five year's time with another bit. For instance Network Rail are not tied into waiting until they have raised x million pounds before they embark on part of the project. You can proceed with some of the key bits.'

Chris added:

'One of the things missing at Euston, I believe, was a conversation about priorities and cost impacts, as the project teams were trying to bring everything together at once which created a very big number. The oversite development was also huge with a very big financial commitment.'

Above: CGI for the Waterloo Master-plan Vision, improving connectivity under the Network Rail main station (Courtesy Grimshaw) and into adjacent neighbourhoods and high streets.

Dianna Neal from London Councils, joined to comment on the first London Infrastructure Plan 2050 which she had been involved in creating one year before. She said:

'We created the Infrastructure Framework because we wanted to show government and private sector that there are lots of projects in London worth investing in, also around growth and net zero but we had never brought them together at one time. We don't have the powers within local government to bring in private investment for these projects, so we often have to go cap in hand to the Treasury. We are doing some work with Business London because we have done this before, with the Northern Line extension where we got Land Value Capture. We got private sector investment via the Crossrail Levy but these are all one-offs. The question is can we do this in a more systematic way? A lot of this type of financing is done elsewhere in the world but can we systemise it so that local places can get an income stream (from infrastructure projects). Ultimately you will have to go to talk to the Treasury but can we get these projects brought forward to a point where they are investable? It shouldn't take so long. It's a sort of fiscal devolution to local authorities, in order to produce growth and sustainability.

'We have also been doing some work with 3Ci working on a neighbourhood approach to net zero. There are some elements of sustainability which are very attractive to the private sector and those which are not. Can we cross-subsidise these projects if we take a neighbourhood approach? If you can only do the energy bit, but not another sustainability project then that doesn't create good places. It won't create the behaviour change that we all want to see.

When asked about competition with the North of England for levelling up funds, Dianna responded:

'You don't need to level down London. We are the only global city in the UK, competing with the likes of New York and Tokyo and we are a positive contributor to the Treasury. However there are lots of levelling up projects needed. We do want the ability to raise money for these projects ourselves, and while it would need some central support, it would drive growth and the housing that London so desperately needs.'

Alasdair Young, Partner at Buro Happold, joined to talk about the need for long term vision on energy and infrastructure planning for development projects, with a 'controlling mind' overseeing it:

'The Olympic Park is one of the best examples of a controlling mind overlooking a project and it was a very forward-looking client. The Olympic Delivery Authority made some sustainable goals which really took construction forward, things like diverting waste from land-fill, minimising water use. The project actually had a recycling system taking water from the outfall sewer, and then treating it to re-use as potable water. Because the regulatory system doesn't support that more broadly that opportunity has been lost. We could have been using that technology for instance in Cambridgeshire to help unlock housing and economic growth there.

'There are two energy centres at Stratford that use a combination of gas and electricity for heating and cooling. One of the first changes there is fitting a recovery heat pump that takes water from the cooling in the shopping centre to use for hot water for the residential apartments being built there. This could be done right across our towns and cities. There are plenty of private investors gearing up to go into the local heat network sector, including Vattenfall from Sweden, EON from Germany to name two. You could take a lot of lessons from the Olympic Park and apply it to create places which are more climate resilient and use less carbon.

'One of Boris Johnson's legacies (as Mayor of London) was to put funding in place for the movement of cultural institutions to the East Bank at Stratford, including the BBC, Sadler's Wells and the V&A. That will really help the skills agenda. However I think the UK is in danger of getting left behind. We have just completed a study for the Mayor of New York on green economy. The Inflation Reduction Act and other measures the US is putting in place is driving huge investment in infrastructure. There is also a lot in the news on China's dominance of the EV and battery sector, so there is sense of Europe and the UK needing to unlock infrastructure investment.

HOK's Principal and European lead for Sustainability and Science + Technology, Gary Clark, remarked on the important role building retrofit must play in the UK's journey to net zero:

'It's a fabric first approach, as we can't solve the net zero problem just with generation, and we have to look at the demand side. We can't just do it just by buying EVs as we need walkable cities, and we can't just solve it with photo-voltaic panels (PV) or by wind. It has to be a mix. We know what needs to be done from a technical perspective, and I have been advocating this for 30 years.

'70 per cent reduction in carbon is possible, via retrofit. On my own Grade II listed house in Glasgow I did it the reverse way by fitting a heat pump first, and then I intended to do retrofit later. Amazingly I saved two thirds on energy with the heat pump. It's a fabric first approach and why waste your precious electricity on heating buildings when we have insulation, air-tightness, basic things that can help. It's best to use Passivhaus Plus on insulation for new builds and on older heritage buildings, the building will tell you how far you can retrofit.

'At HOK we have done 30 studies for developers over the last four years for London alone, looking at retrofit of office buildings into, for example, labs, residential, healthcare and even hospitals. In terms of PV, government studies have said that we can generate 25 Gigawatts on south-facing roofs in the UK, and that doesn't include residential. But this does need infrastructure investment.

'From a government point of view there are two political choices - but there must be cross party collaboration from now on.'

HOK recently completed the design for a deep retrofit of London’s 10 New Bridge Street for European real estate company Atenor, which had acquired the 1960s office block and has a history of creating sustainable urban developments.  

10 New Bridge Street  is in the Fleet Street Conservation Area near St. Bride’s Church, a Grade I Listed building designed by Sir Christopher Wren.  

The redevelopment preserves 72% of the existing structure. A high-performance, planted facade saves energy while respecting its historical context. A permeable ground floor will support activity throughout the day and early evening. 

The design creates a variety of outdoor spaces. A new public passageway—Bridewell Passage—will connect Bridewell Place to Bride Lane, improve access to neighbouring Bridewell Theatre and St. Bride’s Church, and allow for on-site servicing. Other new public amenities include an art wall, juice bar and public house. Office occupants will enjoy new bicycle parking and four outdoor terraces with views of the London skyline.

The project is on track to achieve a minimum of BREEAM Excellent certification. Biophilic design strategies, including a green wall in the double-height office lobby, the outdoor terraces and floor-to-ceiling windows, contribute to a highly sustainable modern workplace.

Future Cities Forum would like to thank all its guests for contributing to such an important debate.

Below: 10 New Bridge Street at dusk (HOK)


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