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Procuring green and socially aware infrastructure

12 February 2021: Infrastructure projects in the UK should be joined up, environmentally and socially aware, strategic and inclusive. AECOM – as an infrastructure professional services firm, delivering services throughout the project lifecycle – shows us the parameters.

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Planners, designers, engineers, consultants and construction managers – they are all part of the mix at AECOM. Richard Whitehead is the Managing Director – Building and Places, UK and Ireland. He also sits on the Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) Board and, further, Chairs the Enterprise Zone Board.

“Sitting on the LEP Board has been an interesting experience,” he says. While his day job revolves around delivering professional services, his work at the LEP has revealed the issues clients (often public bodies) face from a funding and procurement perspective.

The last of his four roles relates to Perfect Circle, a joint venture formed by Pick Everard, Gleeds and AECOM, set up to deliver the Built Environment Consultancy Services (BECS) framework for Scape. The framework is all about delivering quality services to public sector clients, but it is also a mechanism for ensuring value and comprehensive service that can be delivered across the country, at scale.

Whitehead explains that Scape started as a procurement vehicle set up by six local authorities that has evolved to facilitate over 12,000 public projects in the last 15 years. Over 1,000 public bodies have now signed up to Scape’s procurement methodology – using frameworks to make sure private sector infrastructure partners can deliver cost-effectively.

“If you hold this Scape Framework, you can be awarded commissions in the public sector based on the structure of that framework. Over the years, this has grown from primarily a construction vehicle into much bigger and more complex building infrastructure, professional services as well as asset management delivery tool,” says Whitehead.

“Scape is right at the centre of delivering value to the public sector. If you put together a portfolio of public sector projects and you appoint organisations to deliver a portfolio of projects, that is how you get that value, and you get benefits scale too.” That benefit of scale clearly delivers for the public body, but it is also a big deal for the contractors. “Scape is very important for AECOM,” says Whitehead. “It is very important to our business and we drive the KPI performance very hard.”

Whitehead explains that through the Scape Framework, AECOM and its partners deliver various professional services – such as project and cost management, design of infrastructure and buildings – for local and central government and other public sector clients.

“New infrastructure projects tend to grow out of existing central and local government strategy, and a lot of it is relevant to the levelling up agenda,” says Whitehead, wearing both his LEP and corporate hats. “Speed is a critical part of the Scape frameworks. We pride ourselves on paying our supply chain early, or at very least on time. Speed of actual procurement is also a key benefit. There is also a cost-benefit. The Scape frameworks can help reduce public sector costs. For example, some of the smaller councils we work with may no longer need large internal procurement departments because they can rely on Scape and a set of services that are already procured.”

What about the parties to the delivery of a project? Is there an imperative to include SMEs so they are not locked out of infrastructure procurement processes? “We commit to delivering a certain percentage of projects through SMEs and, in doing so, we help develop smaller companies. We also commit to fair payment terms. In effect, this means paying the whole supply chain within 30 days with particular attention to SMEs. That’s something we've been measured on for the last four years as part of our value proposition.”

Of course, the commitment to net zero is going to have a huge impact on the infrastructure services industry. “There will be material changes in the way we work to deliver projects,” he says. “There are three elements to the carbon footprint of buildings. The first is embodied carbon which is due to the construction (or refurbishment) of buildings, then there is operational carbon which is energy used to run the building, and the third are the ‘consumption-based’ emissions of the organisations that use the buildings – for example, business travel. There are now clients who are setting KPIs around these.”

Design decisions are no longer just about cost, quality and safety – they are now about cost, quality, safety and carbon. “We see some clients leading the way. For example, our commercial sector and corporate clients are responding quickly because funders and tenants are demanding green buildings. Government isn't far behind – it is very close,” says Whitehead. “It has been interesting to see the change in the market.”

He points out that it takes three to four years to complete a significant project – and perhaps five or six years to complete a really large one. “If we're going to be carbon net zero by 2030, we have to change how we plan and design buildings now. So, we're making changes right now,” he says.

What about the social aspects of delivery? “Social value and the impact we can have on communities has been a key feature of public sector projects as long as I've been involved with Scape, which is four and a half years. The way we deliver projects has been an important KPI and, again, it's something that we're measured on.” Social value is material in any procurement contract and will include elements like recovery from COVID, well-being and employment.

He does not think levelling up as clear-cut as we tend to think. “I think it's a little unfair to paint London the southeast with the same brush – it's not all city skyscrapers. There are disadvantaged areas of London that need to benefit too. LEPS effectively drive local growth – that is what they are for,” he says. “Government departments seem to be responding to the levelling up agenda. They also don't want to lose the benefit that COVID-19 is brought to how we work. I don’t think they want to rush everyone back to Whitehall.”

And COVID will change things forever in terms of infrastructure needs. Whitehead lists the demise of high street retail and the future of the town centre as prompts for change. “There has to be a response to this” he concludes.

Further reading

Article series: Infrastructure and Recovery

A plethora of financial, climate, health, societal and business issues have resulted in significant challenges for economies globally. Pressure on public finances, and the need for simultaneous levelling up, will be immense – while private investment must be more enlightened. Where does infrastructure investment fit into recovery?

See the series