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Arup boss and infrastructure expert Terry Hill

A lifetime leading major infrastructure projects has made Terry Hill a preacher for their powers of regeneration. But now, he says, the sector needs a revolution.

 

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Terry Hill, chair of board of trustees, Arup

Education
1970 Diploma in Civil & Structural Engineering, Wigan and District Mining and Technical College
1984 MSc Economics, Birkbeck, University of London
2010 Honorary Doctorate, Lancaster University
2010 Honorary Doctorate, City University

Career
1976 Joined Arup
1991 Dublin Port Tunnel
1996 Technical director, Union Railways Ltd
1996 Project manager, Channel Tunnel Rail Link
1999 Project director, Department of Transport Crossrail investigations
2003 Project manager New Tyne Crossing
2004 Chairman, Arup Group
2006 Chairman, UKTI Construction Sector Advisory Group
2009 Chairman, Arup Board of Trustees
2009 Chairman, Global Transport Market

The key factor behind London’s successful bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games — according to Arup’s Terry Hill — wasn’t the legacy plans, the environmental credentials or David Beckham. It was the Channel Tunnel. Or rather it was the rail link between London and the tunnel, also known as High Speed 1 (HS1), which not only connected the UK to the rest of Europe but also stopped at the Stratford area of east London that would become home to the Olympics.

‘Stratford before HS1 was a difficult place to get to — unknown, forgotten,’ Hill said. ‘HS1 meant you could get from the centre of London to the Olympic site in seven minutes. I remember taking the International Olympic Committee through the tunnels between Kings Cross and the Stratford site and they were blown away with the ease [with which] you could get to the Olympic Park. No Olympics had ever achieved that before. And that, to my mind, was what brought the Olympics to London and contributed to its great success.’

Hill, who was technical director of HS1 and chairman of Arup when it worked on Heathrow Terminal 5 and the Beijing Olympic stadium, and recently received the Royal Academy of Engineering’s President’s Medal for promoting excellence in the field, is a great evangelist for the transformative power of infrastructure. Connect two places, he believes, and business, investment and regeneration can follow. ‘This is the thing I have worked all my professional life for, and that is infrastructure as regenerating the economy and region,’ he said. ‘Infrastructure is a fantastic stimulus to creating fantastic new areas.’

‘Infrastructure is a fantastic stimulus to creating fantastic new areas.’

The 16km Öresund Bridge that links Sweden and Denmark is his prime example: since the opening of the Arup-designed crossing in 2000, the previously declining Swedish city of Malmö has become a gentrified, skyscrapered centre of knowledge industries. And back in London, the areas around St Pancras and Stratford stations have also seen major regeneration, which Hill attributes to the arrival of HS1.

It’s hard to argue that infrastructure hasn’t made a difference in these cases, but it’s often one of many factors in regeneration. Malmo’s revival was sparked not just by the bridge but also by a new university and a major housing exposition. East London’s transformation arguably began in the 1990s with a creative scene fuelled by cheap rents and eventually followed by a planned regeneration scheme that included the Olympics. Surely this was more important than the building of a high-speed line to Paris?

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HS1: Key to the Olympics?

His response is that infrastructure is what enables regeneration to happen. ‘Great cities — you think of them because of their icons, their culture, their society. But actually it’s totally underpinned by efficient infrastructure, which we take for granted but actually makes the difference between a busy and crowded place and a world city.’

For all his enthusiasm for what infrastructure can achieve, however, Hill thinks there’s a problem. The world is changing dramatically as more and more people move to the cities, but the way we deliver infrastructure has yet to move with it. And if it doesn’t, then we face a crisis, he argued. ‘In the provision of infrastructure for cities, we’ve not had the transformation that we’ve had in other economic areas. If you look at the digital revolution, the quality of product from the automotive industry, the efficiency that comes with the research that goes into aviation technology, I don’t think we’ve had that in construction and infrastructure.’

This poses a huge challenge. ‘The amount of people living in cities is going to double over the next 40 years. Everything that’sbeen built and provided and run and operated and maintained in cities but has developed over the last 5,000 years has got to be done again in the next 40. If we don’t do that smarter then there is a looming crisis as to what the cities are. The cities we know and love and cherish now are going to be overwhelmed by this tide of humanity rushing in.’

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A big part of the problem has to do with cost. Arguably, we do have more capable and efficient infrastructure that has benefited from digital monitoring and control systems. But as a 2010
report led by Hill highlighted, infrastructure isn’t getting any cheaper. ‘Everything else that you know, whether it’s food, mobile phones, cars, clothing or whatever, the trend is for things to get better, quicker, cheaper. And yet there doesn’t seem to be any trend that way [in infrastructure],’ he said.

It’s a particular problem in the UK: Hill’s report for the Treasury found infrastructure costs in Britain were significantly higher than in Europe, placing the blame on a range of factors including unnecessary standards, blurred decision making in government and a lack of long-term certainty. Hill also pointed to the government’s lack of understanding of the risk of big projects and the tendency to throw money at a situation rather than attempt to reduce costs, which means that we don’t necessarily get the best value for money.

‘People are naturally conservative and think “goodness me, this is going to go over budget — I better have a big budget”, and the trouble is when you have a big budget you tend to spend it. So there’s almost a behavioural nature that ends up in a spiral of increasing costs rather than decreasing costs.’ It’s partly driven by a perception that was formed in previous decades by over-running projects such as the Jubilee line underground extension and the Channel Tunnel itself, he added.

But one could argue that we’ve now learnt from our mistakes and our fear of overspending has made us better at meeting, or at least setting, targets. The Olympics budget was tripled from its original estimate but then met without further overspend. ‘HS1 was not just done on time and on budget; it opened on the day we had predicted six or seven years before,’ said Hill. ‘We’ve done the first order improvement. We now can predict the outcomes and we can deliver against those. I think the second order is just making it far more efficient and that means taking some risks and seeing if we can do things quicker or at a lot lower cost than at the moment.’

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HS1 was completed on time and budget.

It’s not surprising to discover Hill is in favour of the new high-speed rail link between London and northern England. He argues that people always object to big projects because they disturb the comfort of a familiar if unsatisfying status quo, yet once they are finished the public tend to accept the change. But just because people might accept a project in the long run doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best option.

‘People would be less sensitive if we could deliver infrastructure more efficiently.’

‘That’s where I disagree with you,’ he said. ‘I don’t think you have to get infrastructure exactly right, because what happens is the world forms around it. Was that bridge between Denmark and Sweden put in exactly the right place? People, jobs, investment start moving and forming round the new thing. Yes, we’ve got to put the emphasis on getting it as least intrusive as possible. But that should not deter us from getting on and providing it. Because every year it’s not provided there are people who are not benefiting from it and, when it’s done, they will.’

Once again, he believes innovation is the key to overcoming public opposition to major projects. ‘People would be less sensitive if we could deliver infrastructure more efficiently. Imagine if we could do the equivalent of keyhole surgery with infrastructure. We are not doing a bad job with Crossrail: most of it is hidden from view while we’re getting on with it. Imagine if we could do that with railways, with power stations, with waterworks and so on. The equivalent of keyhole surgery for infrastructure would mean that politicians and financiers would take decisions a lotmore readily.’


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