The Thames Tideway “super sewer” is already in the works. © PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

National infrastructure chief: it’s time to build better back-up

Infrastructure operators need to develop long-term resilience strategies so they can withstand future crises
July 13, 2021

The last year has tested our resilience. We’ve been encouraged to be mindful of the impact that the sustained strain has had on our wellbeing. Thankfully, we’ve had less reason to think too much about the stability of our national infrastructure. Thanks to the sterling work of key workers across the country, our water, energy, digital communications and transport systems have coped well despite significant shifts in usage.

The risk of this success is complacency. Being able to successfully deal with one challenge does not necessarily mean you are prepared for the next one. The reshaping of our economy provides a chance to start valuing resilience and adaptation properly.

This makes financial sense. For example, the estimated cost of sticking at current levels of resilience and paying for emergency responses to extreme drought would cost around £40bn over the next 30 years, almost double the cost of upgrading our water system to help mitigate that risk; a stitch in time saves nine. But we need to knit protection and sustainability into the fabric of our national utilities and other key infrastructure. Last year the National Infrastructure Commission proposed a new framework that places a greater focus on risk anticipation, building resilience in from the start. 

There is currently no systematic national review of the resilience of our utilities that the public and politicians can scrutinise. The impact of Covid-19 should prompt us to ask how we can better prepare for the unexpected shocks of the future—as well as the ones we can predict, like the impacts of climate change.

This year provides an opportunity for the UK to lead the pack in the “race to resilience” championed by the UN alongside the race to net-zero emissions. While focused on the world’s most vulnerable communities, the campaign highlights the universal importance of being ready to adapt, transform and thrive in the face of environmental shifts.

The commission has called on the government to publish a transparent set of resilience standards every five years, setting out which disruptions and failures infrastructure is expected to resist, and anticipated recovery times for severe incidents. Network Rail’s recent commitment to agree the service level passengers can expect during extreme weather is a good example of the type of clarity needed. The commission has also recommended that infrastructure operators carry out regular stress tests, overseen by regulators.

We are also calling on infrastructure operators to develop long-term resilience strategies. Of course, many infrastructure operators are already planning ahead, supporting major schemes such as the Thames Tideway “super sewer” and the National Grid’s investment in future energy scenarios to guide planning.

But it won’t happen on the scale required without incentives for private operators. All regulators should be given explicit duties to promote the resilience of their sectors, including ensuring that their price review decisions are consistent with meeting resilience standards. This will likely require clearer engagement with customers about the long-term benefits of such investment.

The government is due to respond formally to our recommendations soon, and a resilience strategy has been promised for later this year. Its commitment to consider threats and hazards in the round, as well as to think broadly about the role of private and public sector stakeholders in that strategy, is encouraging, and in line with the commission’s own recommendations. Ministers must take the opportunity to reflect the importance of resilience in the direction they give to those who monitor our regulated industries.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we should learn lessons for the buffers we design into the vital services upon which our economy depends. We not only need to build back better, but build better back-up.