REUTERS | Eric Thayer

UK infrastructure is “vulnerable”

The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) has published a report, The State of the Nation: Defending Critical Infrastructure, on the security of the UK’s key infrastructure networks. The report pulls no punches, stating that “without reform, the UK is in danger of not having the infrastructure it needs to operate.”

The risks

The report focuses on the UK’s energy, transport, waste and water systems and assesses their vulnerability to three types of threat:

  • System failure.
  • Climate change.
  • Terrorism.

The report concludes that current levels of protection for the UK’s infrastructure are inadequate. Although some progress has been made in protecting against terrorism, there is little provision for dealing with system failure (such as equipment faults) and climate change.

The recommendations

The report makes four recommendations:

  • Create a single point of authority. The Government should create a single point of authority for infrastructure resilience. At the moment, there is no body with an overview of the situation.
  • Empower the Natural Hazards Team. The success of the Government’s new Natural Hazards Team is key to tackling the risks posed by climate change. The Natural Hazards Team must be given enough power to provide strong leadership and ensure compliance with legislation.
  • Create a wider remit for sector regulators. The Government must give clearer guidance to sector regulators (such as Ofgem and Ofwat). Sector regulators should have the power to address infrastructure resilience, not just price control for consumers.
  • Improve the planning system. The Government must ensure that the Planning Act 2008 and the Infrastructure Planning Commission effectively reform the planning regime for infrastructure projects. The current planning system causes too much delay.

Impact on the construction and engineering industry

The report will interest construction and engineering practitioners for several reasons:

  • It highlights the risks faced by those who operate infrastructure systems. This will be of concern to public sector operators, and also private companies operating under PPP or similar arrangements (together with their funders).
  • It underlines the need for careful negotiation of contracts for the design, construction and operation of infrastructure, including:
    • the extent of insurance cover and who pays for that cover;
    • an operator or contractor’s entitlement to claim relief or liability to pay damages if any of the events described in the report occur; and
    • the adequacy of security requirements set out in the contract.
  • It raises the possibility of significant future investment in UK infrastructure, with increased work for UK contractors, sub-contractors and suppliers.
  • It gives the Government an added incentive to reform the UK planning system.

Possibility of infrastructure failure

Perhaps most importantly, even for those with no involvement in infrastructure projects, the report highlights the real possibility of infrastructure failure in the future. All UK businesses should take note and make contingency plans for how they will continue business if one of the utilities, the transport network or the UK’s communications system is affected by a major incident. A good starting point may be the Government’s UK Resilience homepage.

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