Scottish Futures Trust: Doing the hard yards for Scotland’s infrastructure needs
The turn of the new financial year triggers a giddy season of public sector corporate publishing activity, and in these new documents, months if not years of business planning are commonly summarised, given executive overview, morphed into consumable infographics and released to strut their stuff on the catwalk of public accountability – accessible for the curious, deep enough for the already involved, reassuring to financiers.
But not all corporate plans are created equal.
In the case of Scottish Futures Trust (SFT) – the Scottish Government’s independent centre of infrastructure expertise – which has published its latest five-year corporate plan outlining how it will prioritise its work towards a vision of “world-class infrastructure for the people of Scotland”, the defining ethos is one which unifies almost every common concern for the future of Scotland’s public services.
The headlines in its plans show that SFT is working to enable developments where jobs can be created and homes built, and to ensure effective delivery of public sector infrastructure development.
But the reach of the organisation goes far beyond the surface engagement of these aims. Nearly all significant roads of governmental aspiration have at least some significant implication for infrastructure development, and that in-turn requires that the process of infrastructure development is fit for purpose – delivering to brief, functional and sustainable, and built on sound economic reasoning and financing structures.
As SFT’s CEO, Peter Reekie, states: “Modern, high quality infrastructure is essential for the economy of Scotland, and for its transition to a low carbon, digital economy. Future infrastructure is going to be different from how it is today. Economic infrastructure will be electric vehicle charging networks, it’s going to be 5G mobile networks, and getting the planning done for those things early on is really important for the economy of Scotland. Our job, in helping that planning, is to work with all the public sector and private sector partners to get that right.
“Infrastructure is changing for public service delivery as well, it needs to change to deliver joined-up service delivery, and the way we go about delivering those things is also changing as we embrace technology in the industry to increase the productivity of the industry.
“We have to see all of these trends and to act across the public and private sectors to try to draw them together to make that change happen for Scotland, and to deliver what the economy needs.
“In addition, the economic impact of Scotland becoming a world-leading digital nation is huge as it could boost GDP by around 10 per cent. But to reap that reward, all of Scotland must be at the forefront of technology. We are delivering the 4G mobile mast infill programme to cover many rural mobile not-spots and working on Scotland's 5G strategy which will be piloted at Dundee’s waterfront area.”
But sitting down with Reekie to discuss the finer points of the SFT’s work reveals that beneath the headline acts of eye-watering benefits from well-conceived and well-delivered public infrastructure developments is a series of activities that enables all those charged with infrastructure development in the public sector to work efficiently and to best practice.
In addition, SFT provides a resource in finance and investment design and management that can be key to getting valuable projects over the start and finishing lines.
One example, which an animated and enthusiastic Reekie defines as being “a really interesting development in my world” is the organisation’s production of ‘reference designs’ for new nursery and early years education facilities for Scotland’s local authorities.
The expansion in free childcare hours is a policy with wide political accord. It is seen as supporting individuals to financially sustain their working lives or to enter the work place, and provides good outcomes for children. But the implication of this policy roll-out is that there has been a rapid growth in the building of new early years facilities. But what, ideally, should those new buildings look like, what is the best balance point in design and cost in terms of delivering best practice in early years education? In that space sits SFT and its reference designs.
As Reekie states: “One of the hardest bits in terms of any new building is in the briefing – turning a service need into a building specification, and that’s the bit where you have to understand how the service will be delivered, what the scale is, what should be close together, what should be far apart, for us, in schools, that includes the use of squashy spaces, the small spaces for bean bags or for small group use, and that’s a much more modern learning environment than a classroom with thirty desks lined up facing the front. We need to be able to bring in these kinds of different learning environments.
“In terms of nurseries, at one end of spectrum you have the nursery designer who says this is how it works, but every community has a different need, and on the other hand you could have every local authority having to work on its own to understand the national standards, the new approaches to pedagogy at that level of education, the new thinking about outsides spaces and so on and so forth. Our approach is to go down the middle and say here is a design that shows how all of these leading practices can be embodied in a building, take it if you want, use it or adapt it for your own circumstances, so it does some of the hard yards of compliance but doesn’t impose a solution. It’s providing best practice guidance, it’s a source of reference material, it’s a centre of expertise in these kinds of facilities that others can draw on.”
And this enabling and supportive approach to ensure good outcomes without imposing a one-size-fits-all solution is also evidenced in the SFT’s work in the changing look of the nation’s street lighting.
“There was a good case to be made on a spend to save cash basis but also on a carbon save basis for moving to LED streets lights”, says Reekie, “we and others identified that need and then we put together a tool kit for local authority street lighting people that made it easy for them to make the business case – we did the heart of the business case, the putting together of the spreadsheets that linked how many tons of CO2 you saved from so many street lights over so many years and what the tick shape of the investment pay-back might look like. We did that as a central exercise and shared that with local authorities and said here’s that work done for you. We also worked with Scotland Excel [the Centre of Procurement Expertise for Scotland's local government sector] to put together a framework agreement to buy LED street lighting. Again, that commercial expertise in terms of what was needed to unlock that investment is what we added.”
Maximizing the benefits of infrastructure development for industry and the public sector alike is also a common theme in SFT’s approach and is driving its work to promote technological advance within the construction sector.
As Reekie states: “I don’t just see the construction industry as delivering stuff for us I see it as a partner in the economy, so when we buy things form the industry, we want to buy it for the industry as well as buying it from the industry. It is important that to do the best for the economy from our infrastructure development we don’t just have to get the right things from the industry we have to get the right outcomes for the industry. That’s another role we have, as a kind of interface between the public sector as a major buyer of construction output and the industry to try and help both sides get the most from that.”