Major project plans ‘a struggle’ due to industry’s failure to modernise

National infrastructure goals are being undermined by the construction sector’s reluctance to modernise, a leading industry figure has warned.

Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) chief executive Nick Smallwood said the industry had not changed in 40 years and actively resisted the adoption of new technologies as it was “paid the revenue for doing it the long way”.

Addressing a meeting of the House of Lords’ Built Environment Committee, he warned that the ambition behind the government’s National Infrastructure Strategy and associated £650bn pipeline of work may fail to materialise because of a lack of skills and capacity in the sector.

“I think we will struggle to deliver that unless we have two fundamental shifts,” he told peers. “One is that we need to invite and invest more into the construction sector, to grow that population and community with the right skills.

“And secondly, those skills need to change because the industry needs to change, it needs to modernise.”

The IPA, which reports to the Treasury and Cabinet Office, is described as the government’s centre of expertise for infrastructure and major projects.

Smallwood said that after working for 38 years in the oil and gas sectors, when he took up his current role he found that the construction sector “looked the same” as it did four decades ago.

“It just has not modernised,” he said. “And yet you look at automotive, aeronautical or the oil and gas world, they’ve moved on.”

The issue was not an absence of technology, he added. “Digitalisation and technology is already in front of us, available and mature, that is not being used in UK construction,” said Smallwood.

He rejected a suggestion from committee chair Lord Daniel Moylan that this was partly due to a lack of available capital in the industry, saying companies were financially incentivised to continue using inefficient methods.

“They get paid the revenue to do it the long way rather than using technology to take hours and time out,” he said.

He expressed similar sentiments in a 2020 interview with Construction News when he highlighted the widespread use of 5D computer-aided design (CAD) – a model that incorporates planning and materials availability as two extra dimensions – in the energy sector.

“I’ve yet to see that kind of technology on UK [construction] projects. There are many technologies that aren’t cutting-edge – they’ve been around for two to five years – and I think we really need to step up and use them,” he said at the time.

Smallwood also previously warned that a lack of specialist labour in the sector posed a “huge challenge” for the delivery of major infrastructure schemes.

At the committee meeting this week, he said a digitalisation infrastructure guide was available from the government, and a suite of best-practice guides had been published.

“I can tell you there are pockets and seeds of excellence now appearing,” he told peers.

One of these was at Hinkley Point C, although as a private scheme the power plant was not one of the projects in the IPA’s portfolio.

“They are leading the way now on using a data lake [centralised information repository] and digital technologies to really drive their performance on that project, not only in the build phase but also in how they’re going to commission, operate and start up that asset, so there’s huge opportunity,” he said.

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