As arms are jabbed faster than almost anywhere else in the world, the UK has finally found a vital delivery mechanism where it can make a genuine claim to being world-beating.
That success is encouraging politicians and officials across the country to turn their attention increasingly to the UK’s post-COVID future. They are considering how “building back better” and “levelling-up” might be transformed from easy sound bites to detailed policies and decisions that will support the development of much-needed new homes, roads and rail links.
In the run-up to Rishi Sunak’s Budget on 3 March many in-house and consultant lobbyists are in overdrive as they seek to secure new funding for their favoured infrastructure projects. Boris Johnson’s allies have boasted in the past about the Prime Minister’s support for infrastructure development on a scale not seen since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The prosaic reality is that, for now, the UK continues to languish well down the global league table for quality infrastructure.
According to the most recent infrastructure country rankings, produced by the World Economic Forum, the UK, though the fifth largest economy in the world, doesn’t even make the top ten. Right at the top is Singapore and, in Europe, Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland are all ahead of the UK.
Improving on that dismal record will require not just a significant new impetus from Westminster and Whitehall, but also supportive decision-making by the devolved nations and local authorities across the country. This means that there is now considerable scope for effective pro-infrastructure lobbying at every level of government.
Advising clients and helping them to implement infrastructure development campaigns over recent years has taught me a number of lessons about what seems to work best, so here are my top seven tips for successful lobbying on specific infrastructure proposals:
1. Understand that the days when environmental issues could be ignored or downplayed are long since gone. Unless your proposals can genuinely pass sustainable development tests, they won’t stand a chance. “Greenwashing” won’t suffice. Local authorities and central government alike will be looking for substantive measures to tackle real issues around, for example, climate change and biodiversity;
2. Make sure that you listen to and address the concerns of the broadest possible range of stakeholders. That may well mean offering some concessions, but securing the go-ahead for a plan that meets 90% of your objectives is a better outcome than finding your perfect plan completely blocked;
3. Don’t under-estimate the power of support from local businesses for local infrastructure projects. Working in the recent past on a large infrastructure project in East Anglia, I have never forgotten the striking impact that we achieved by organising a well-attended business round table in the presence of the then Secretary of State for Transport;
4. Work hard to secure and maintain support from local MPs. While they have no formal role in planning and public spending decisions, their influence is unquestionably significant. While I was working on that same East Anglia project, it was a point that was underlined to me informally by both Highways England and the Department for Transport. Making sure that local MPs are both well-informed and properly co-ordinated can make the difference between success or failure. It might only take the defection to the opposition of one “wobbly” MP to doom your project;
5. Recognise that local authorities across the country are resource starved. More than ever, officials warmly welcome detailed, knowledgeable and credible input from infrastructure developers. I have noticed this particularly in recent weeks as my e-mobility client and I have worked with a number of authorities across England to help them to develop detailed plans for e-scooters and e-bicycles. It is fine for central government to say that these transport modes offer an environmentally friendly alternative to cars and public transport, but it won’t actually happen on the ground unless local authorities understand exactly what they need to do to make it happen in their areas;
6. Help developers to express their proposals in persuasive jargon-free language that will make it easier for decision-makers to understand the implications and stakeholder benefits of the proposals. In my experience, this is one of the most valuable roles that public affairs professionals can play, whether they are in-house or consultants. Corporate guff (like “High performance. Delivered.” to quote one leading UK management consultancy”) just won’t cut it with officials who are looking for real data and concrete benefits;
7. Monitor local media and online fora in real time so that you or your client can rapidly rebut untruths or half-truths that are being promoted by opponents of your development proposals. Building good relationships with local journalists and specialist journalists working for national media can help to ensure that your proposals receive a fair and timely hearing.
As Boris Johnson’s Government seeks to “build back better” in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, infrastructure development will surely have a key role to play. It is a high-risk, high-reward business where, in my opinion, well-crafted and well-implemented public affairs campaigns can make the difference between success or failure.
by Dave McCullough, Managing Director, Riverside Communications