The intense pressures of economic competition at a global scale are fueling the growth of major infrastructure investments at an unprecedented rate. These investments are frequently perceived as critical to the ‘success’ of major urban, regional and national development through their ability to affect significant socio-economic change (OMEGA Centre, 2012). Notwithstanding that major and ‘mega’ infrastructure investments currently dominate development agendas worldwide, they hold significant notoriety due to their widespread inability to meet their original expectations, as evidenced by the proliferation of international academic and grey literature seeking to understand and mitigate against the drivers of such failure (see, amongst others, Hall, 1980; Morris and Hough, 1987; Flyvbjerg et al., 2003).
An in-depth international study of 30 mega projects (OMEGA Centre, 2012) across ten developed countries in Europe, America, East and South East Asia, found the conventional wisdom of major project planning and delivery as too narrow in scope to adequately consider the risks and uncertainties typical of such projects over the long term. It follows that the toolsets currently deployed for infrastructure planning cannot respond robustly to, for example, unexpected events or policy changes external to project management decision-making. Given that many major projects often become strategic change agents with multiple spatial, economic, environmental and social impacts, research suggests such projects require framing within a broader set of perspectives, thus acknowledging the existence of a wider purpose beyond the more immediate project delivery concerns (OMEGA Centre, 2011:96). This is particular so considering the significant interdependencies and long development and operational phases that major projects entail. Therefore, the real challenge facing infrastructure development in general, and decision making in particular, is not only represented by how to overcome the irreducible complexity and uncertainty which characterizes the delivery of large-scale infrastructure, but equally important is how to shape these long term and interconnected endeavors, framing and reframing their strategic missions against fast changing contextual forces and trends.
A key element of responding to such challenges is adequate levels of Institutional, policy and legislative support without which major projects are unlikely to be able to deliver the full range of planned benefits to be deemed truly successful. Whether such an institutional framework is bespoke or represents an adaptation of current arrangements, the OMEGA findings point to the critical requirement for it to be transparent and accountable over the long-term. With this in mind, such frameworks need to be capable of addressing the wide-ranging expectations and aspirations that major projects inevitably engender. Considering the UK institutional frameworks in light of these findings, there has arguably been a historical lack of the necessary support to simultaneously consider both the tactical and strategic aspects required of successful infrastructure investment. However, the recent creation of two new institutions, namely the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) offers to put the UK on a stronger footing in this regard. The NIC, an executive agency, sponsored by HM Treasury and formed in 2015, aims to provide government with impartial, expert advice on major strategic infrastructure challenges over the long-term. Whilst the IPA, formed in 2016 from an amalgamation of Infrastructure UK (IUK) and the Major Projects Authority (MPA) has a mandate to “support the successful delivery of all types of infrastructure and major projects … to ensure infrastructure and major projects are delivered efficiently and effectively”. The creation of the IPA and NIC are significant steps towards the development of supportive institutional, policy and legislative frameworks. The MPA was, with its publication of the National Infrastructure Pipeline, often criticized for a lack of cross cutting strategic foresight (IoG, 2017), but this is expected to improve with the strategic support of the NIC. However, whilst it is too early to evaluate the impacts these two institutions have had on the planning of successful major infrastructure investments, preliminary research in this regard suggests both organisations face challenges against the priorities identified in the OMEGA research cited above. The NIC, whilst focusing broadly across UK infrastructure sectors, has not been established on the independent and depoliticized footing it initially envisaged, ultimately threatening its ability to influence the countries strategic infrastructure development over the long-term (Aitken, 2019). The IPA still struggles with the thorny issues of project evaluation (NAO, 2016). Importantly, for two institutions dealing with the strategic and operational ends of infrastructure success, the evaluation and decision making frameworks deployed across and between the NIC and IPA, remain, respectively, either underdeveloped (Aitken, 2019) or underapplied (NAO, 2016). Resolving the subsequent inconsistencies across the “valley of death between policy creation and programme delivery” (Civil Service World, 2018) towards integrated institutional and evaluation frameworks and methods remains a priority for these two institutions going forward.