The DIO Procurement Plan 2018/19 and the MOD’s Better Defence Estate strategy detail over £24bn of investment and regeneration opportunities. That is in addition to the £400bn in the 2018 National Infrastructure and Construction Pipeline. All of these are expected to happen over the next decade. So, thinking big is clearly not a problem for Defence or for infrastructure schemes generally. However, the challenge is to make these plans a reality and to avoid the problems these kinds of projects have experienced in the past.
Part of that is about understanding exactly what is needed from new facilities and making sure they add value to support future military capability. The aim of the defence infrastructure strategy is to transform the estate built for previous generations of warfighting into one that will better support the Armed Forces’ future needs. That means, for instance, more buildings for cyber-warriors and their communications and fewer storage facilities.
The infrastructure plans are large-scale and important, but the difficulty is that big infrastructure schemes, in the defence sector and elsewhere, are proving hard to get moving. UK construction output has fallen for a second month (as reported in April’s PMI report) and is not growing in line with the planned infrastructure schemes. And the reason is that big schemes are not being approved fast enough and are taking longer to deliver.
This is nothing new. The need for the M25 was identified over 75 years before it opened in 1986. It is well known that big business cases for big schemes need big approval processes. The sheer scale of the projects makes decisions harder and governance more difficult, all of which slows things down.
The other problem is that getting a project approved is only the first hurdle. When big infrastructure schemes do start they often gain a seemingly unstoppable momentum where nothing in the original plan can be changed. That brings a risk that they can end up failing to deliver all that is required. We’re all familiar with big infrastructure projects where the completion date gets pushed back. Often the problem is that the design of infrastructure was locked in from the start making it difficult to refine the approach when challenges arise along the way.
The answer is to re-imagine today’s big infrastructure schemes so that they can start small and scale fast. For instance, the M25 completion came about after 39 separate public enquiries gradually piecing together the need for the complete road via smaller sections. It started small and each completed element of work provided value to taxpayers.
The same benefits can be applied to Defence infrastructure schemes. For instance, two years ahead of a big move to a new site, one of the military units demolished part of the existing facilities and started a programme to support smarter working for all staff. These were small steps and less cost-effective on paper than doing everything all at the same time. But the smaller first steps make the later steps much more likely to succeed. They allow lessons to be learned, they mean that users can change, designs can be optimised, and systems can be adapted.
This kind of learning as you go also encourages multiple uses for the same infrastructure. Leasing or selling off military land to allow the building of a fast food shop or a garage outside the base means that more people can benefit from the new service.
Defence has multiple sites and is organised on a dispersed regional basis. This means that if a military site sells part of the site infrastructure, then income can be retained to support improvements to enable the next set of building and sales. To do this effectively requires a practical range of approaches to delivering value early, supported by those with the skills to apply agile thinking and innovation.
The defence sector, through DIO, has a real opportunity to lead the way. It has big infrastructure thinking in its commercial strategy, procurement planning and professional asset management strategies for refreshed and new infrastructure. Through starting small and scaling fast, defence can make things happen so that the military has a better-designed estate for the flexibility and new ways of working needed to combat the emerging threats to UK security and prosperity.