DCBC at the National Infrastructure Forum 2017

22 Jun 2017

Having attended the National Infrastructure Forum (NIF) in London on Tuesday last week, there were some really interesting themes emerging. The first of which was Lord Adonis’ insistence that despite the hung parliament, an on-off relationship with the US and looming negotiations with the EU, there was a “strong pipeline of infrastructure projects” and high levels of political consensus about spending requirements - hmmm.

The second theme was the importance of the coming together of digital and physical infrastructure (expertly articulated by Mark Enzer of Mott MacDonald), making an excellent case for increased investments into more cost-effective, smart infrastructure enhancements, which promise to deliver better outcomes for the ultimate customer; fare-bill and taxpayers. Within the UK and in many other developed nations, we have reached a state of ‘infrastructure maturity’, where the value of new infrastructure is far outweighed by that of existing infrastructure. Investment in digital enhancements to existing and planned infrastructure, over and above that made for digital delivery, have the potential to transform the whole life cycle value of infrastructure. An excellent paper on the subject can be found here.

The third theme that I picked up, which was articulated quite clearly during a panel discussion focusing on ‘transforming regional infrastructure’ and including a number of key organisations from Manchester, Newcastle and the Midlands, was that it appears to be challenging times for just about every part of the country, apart from London. Indeed, it would have been possible to replace the geographic references found on the panelists name badges with Devon, Cornwall or the SW, without needing to change any of the discussion. Investment in regional infrastructure is worryingly low, full stop. However, infrastructure is not enough, and ‘place’ is as fundamentally important; housing, skills, culture and public realm are all vital components of strong regional economies.

My attendance at the NIF was no accident, as DCBC shall be focusing on some of these issues during our infrastructure focused conference on September 8th in Cornwall. In particular, smart infrastructure will feature strongly.

Right now, I would argue that attracting and retaining skilled and talented people is perhaps our biggest regional challenge over the next decade. In 2016, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills found that there were over 70,000 job openings in the South West region and around 17,000 of them difficult to fill because of a lack of skilled recruits. The number of job vacancies going unfilled is reported to be linked to candidates lacking appropriate skills, and the FSB (2015) found that this is the third biggest barrier to growth.

With unfilled vacancies and untapped potential, business growth and our continued prosperity will require employers to retain and upgrade the skills they already have and to attract more highly skilled people to work within the South West.

If you haven’t already seen it, the Centre for Cities published a really insightful report on student and graduate migration: ‘The Great British Brain Drain’ They made some interesting conclusions about the need to focus on; general educational attainment, economic fundamentals (housing, transport and planning), and boosting demand for skilled employees in order to improve the number of talented people attracted and retained.

Incidentally, I have recently had some very encouraging conversations with both the Centre of Cities and the New Economics Foundation about opportunities for collaboration with DCBC. More on this in due course.

DCBC’s conference on 30th June in Plymouth will explore the national and regional challenges of attracting and retaining talent, as well as existing and potential solutions. It will challenge some perceptions and encourage the continued development of strong and inclusive partnerships between employers, educators and regional champions.

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