City leaders are weakest link in good infrastructure delivery, study finds

The top impediments to infrastructure delivery are city authorities, says new research, with lack of political will, lack of skills and sheer ineffectiveness topping the list of failings. 

Compounding the difficulties is a lack of funds, and more so in Western Europe than in anywhere else. 

Respondents in Latin America cited greater transparency in government spending as a top factor for improving infrastructure and services.

Urban infrastructure and services globally are in need of major investment within the next five years if they are to remain adequate, according to research, carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit and commissioned by Spanish infrastructure and environmental services group FCC.

Researchers surveyed over 400 policy makers and business executives across the world to see what they thought about urban infrastructure.

Three quarters of respondents believe their urban infrastructure is adequate today, but 68% believe investment will be needed in the next five years. 

Business executives prioritised transport and ICT, while policy makers are more concerned with "hidden" services such as water and waste. Both groups made clear that the responsibility for improvements lies with city leaders, who were linked to the top impediments to infrastructure delivery.

Lack of political will (40%), lack of skills among officials (39%) and poor governmental effectiveness (34%) topped this list of impediments, with policy makers proving harsher critics on themselves than the private sector. 

Compounding the difficulties faced by city leaders is a lack of funds (34%) which was also cited as a top impediment, and more so in Western Europe than in any other region. A further 54% of respondents in Latin America cited greater transparency in government spending as a top factor for improving infrastructure and services – 10% higher than the global average.

"Matching the expectations and requirements of citizens with practical, financially viable solutions delivered by city authorities and service providers is one of the greatest obstacles facing cities today," said Juan Bejar, CEO of FCC. "This research demonstrates just how pressing the challenge is."

82% of respondents believe the government should work to a greater extent with the private sector to improve urban infrastructure and services. The use of public-private partnerships (PPPs) were also encouraged by respondents. 

72% of respondents said they would be willing to change their water and energy consumption if given better access to consumption information and 76% said they would change their transport usage if given better information about travel disruption. 

Brian Gardner, Senior Editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit, and editor of the report, said, "While city leaders receive the blame for poor infrastructure, it is clear that they cannot deliver unless they work effectively with both service providers and the citizens themselves".

The recommendations of the report call for city authorities to work together as partners rather than adversaries, build relationships with citizens through feedback platforms, and be honest with citizens and service providers. They also suggest improving efficiency of infrastructure and service delivery through partnerships like PPPs, and planning for the long-term by introducing open source standards, or establishing policies that require new structures meet energy, water and wastewater efficiency goals.

The full report can be downloaded here.

Photograph: Construction underway on Hong Kong’s $1.16bn West Kowloon Terminus Station (North), awarded to a Leighton-Gammon joint venture (courtesy of formwork specialist RMD Kwikform)

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