Making the Integrated Rail Plan a success will take education, cooperation, and the right oversight, says Dan Rodgers, Director at Turner & Townsend

The publication of the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) was perhaps the biggest story in UK rail for 2021 and, three months later, the dust is still settling. Many in the north of England in particular remain frustrated by a perceived move away from long-touted East-West connectivity, most significantly with Bradford and Leeds.

Nonetheless, this £96 billion investment has the potential to be catalyst for greater change, and perhaps to be the starting point for a truly integrated reimagining of the UK’s rail network. To achieve this potential we must move from the ‘what’ to the ‘how’ – and bring the industry and government together with a single goal in mind: ensuring we deliver for our regions.

While the specifics of the plan are subject to political debate, the publication of the IRP was welcome for many reasons. Here was a nationwide strategy, showing a move away from the piecemeal planning of the past, and it coordinated this investment with the advice of the National Infrastructure Commission and the previous announcement to form Great British Rail. More than this, it unblocked a series of funding decisions that had been waiting for the IRP before moving forward, such as the Midlands Main Line, the Midlands Rail Hub, and the next phases of HS2.

So while much of the funding committed was already in place before the plan, merely repurposed, rebadged or restated – it is still the biggest investment in a long time, with other projects following in its slipstream. With this in mind, it’s now critically important to look forward at how to make it a success, both in terms of delivering connectivity, reducing regional inequality, and transitioning the UK to a low carbon economy.

Reducing red tape
Realising this ambition will require a series of important steps. First is navigating the inevitable political interference that can often delay actual investment – so that the plan can be kickstarted sooner rather than later. This strategy is too important to become trapped in a governance quagmire. In the CBI’s recent report, in partnership with Turner & Townsend (Programmes with Purpose: delivering success in Government’s major projects), it set out a sensible way to approach this challenge by offering recommendations to improve the delivery of the Government’s Major Projects Portfolio (GMPP).

In particular, the report argues for oversight of the National Infrastructure Pipeline to be transferred to the UK Infrastructure Bank to streamline the decision-making and prioritisation processes. Shifting this responsibility out of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) can in turn create extra capacity within the IPA to take oversight of an increasingly connected ‘industry’ for major projects – capable of coordinating and delivering change by drawing on expertise from across major programmes.

Programmes with Purpose coincided with the publication of the IRP, and we saw some indications of this kind of joined up thinking both within the plan and in more recent announcements. For instance, the decision to give HS2 responsibility for delivering Network Rail’s upgrade works as well as the next HS2 phases. This is both more efficient and can create a wider sense of ownership
for the whole connected programme. It would be good to see more of this across the UK as we move forward.

Investing in delivering the vision
However, getting the whole industry prepared to deliver a new integrated connectivity revolution requires more than just breaking down silos and getting sub-sectors talking to each other. An education exercise is needed that will mean changing behaviours (and even contracts) to force organisations to look more widely at all these projects as a single programme of works to be delivered. Part of this is increasing expertise and decreasing leadership turnover in the private and public sectors – so skills are built up and retained and relationships are grown. High talent churn leads to inefficiencies as people relearn plans, have to rebuild relationships, and bring competing visions. Stability and experience are needed across industry and government.

At all levels of construction and delivery we also need more labour capacity, and investment now in local skills, digital technology and project leadership in the regions where the projects will be
brought forward. Otherwise projects risk competing for limited resources across the country, rather than serving as a catalyst to build local talent pools and industries. Again, correctly targeting this investment will require substantial planning and coordination between stakeholders, but it is essential, and the rewards will speak for themselves.

Focusing on outcomes
For a programme to be coherent and successful it must above all be guided by a clear focus on outcomes which is currently lacking. For the IRP, as with other major projects of a similar nature, the outcomes should be green, inclusive and productive: a decarbonised economy; a reduction in regional inequality through levelling up; and the building of skills and expertise to be exported across the rest of the UK and internationally.

Focusing on these outcomes is important at a practical level, as it means you can target the right investment in the right places, join up the right stakeholders, and put in place the right governance structures. It’s also about the real purpose of these programmes – achieving societal aims and benefits through the investment power of major projects.

Government is in danger of losing sight of outcomes in the face of short-term political pressure. It talks about connectivity and commuters, without acknowledging that a primary objective of the IRP was supposed to be fixing logistics capacity, and getting freight off roads to benefit the environment and increase efficiency. Transport for the North picked up on this with its recent consultation on a new freight and logistics strategy – highlighting how absent this had been from the original IRP.

This is also why defining these outcomes must come hand in hand with defining clear accountability and measures of success and failure. We need to know who is responsible for delivering this vision and be able to assess in a decade what has been successful – and who might have let the side down. At the moment it is unclear how responsibility is shared between Government and the private sector. While Government must certainly by accountable for the return on such large, taxpayer-funded expenditure – it should also set out where specifically the responsibilities of the industry lie. Only by working together will we get close to the moon-shot we must achieve.

The IRP and the subsequent plans and strategies being brought forward are all welcome. But there is a lot of information outstanding that we need to see to assess its current chance of success. While this strategy may provide a compass direction, the path ahead is full of twists and turns. To deliver the projects that we need to benefit the Midlands, the North and the UK – we will need clarity of ownership and responsibility, renewed market and government collaboration, reformed governance and oversight, investment in local expertise and sustainable connectivity, attempts to lower the turnover of experience. Above all though, we need a programmatic approach with clear, purposeful outcomes.

At least the IRP is here. But now the real work must begin.

-Dan Rodgers is Director at Turner & Townsend