Simon Blanchflower CBE: In praise of brilliant design

This week, I’ve been reflecting on the role of brilliant design on big infrastructure projects. That elusive balance of functionality, sustainability, cost and visual impact.

My thoughts were triggered on this topic after attending the RIBA Stirling Award ceremony.

The team I led while at Network Rail was shortlisted thanks to our part in the bold £1 billion redevelopment of London Bridge Station designed by Grimshaw. We may have been beaten to the top prize by the innovative Goldsmith Street development in Norwich but to our delight we did get RIBA Client of the Year for championing amazing architecture throughout our project.

One year after being appointed Chief Executive of East West Railway Company, I’m determined we become an equally visionary client.

It helps that we were founded to do something very different from other railway projects and can offer something of a blank canvas to work on. Our business model combines delivery of both rail infrastructure and passenger services for a new direct rail connection between Oxford and Cambridge. We have a remit – unique in the industry - to promote innovation and challenge industry norms.

In my experience, to effectively champion great design, a client needs to offer a clarity of vision combined with a willingness to listen and evolve. You need to choose business partners with shared values – in our case this is around delivering a railway that truly serves our communities.

Much of our vision is about responding to design requirements from a human perspective. We’re using methodology developed by the Design Council to walk in the customers shoes throughout. Our decisions will be based on research and insight. We’ll differentiate from what’s currently available because we’ll reflect what people living between Oxford and Cambridge really want.

The common thread running through the shortlisted award entries for the Stirling Prize was sustainability. While often viewed as purely an environmental issue – of course it covers social and economic issues also.

I find this increased industry focus tremendously encouraging; it reinforces my commitment to weave sustainability into everything we do.

As we select a route between Bedford and Cambridge, our consideration of environmental impacts is guiding the process. We support the government’s policy on biodiversity net gain, which seeks to reduce impacts on species and create and enhance habitats. Our aim is also to minimise our carbon footprint, through advancing low carbon design, construction and operations to support the UK’s 2050 net zero carbon target.

Future-proofing is important. We know people’s requirements will change in the time before our railway is fully built. Building in flexibility goes a huge way to reduce wasteful reworking of the wrong designs or solutions.

Place-making is also a driving factor. At East West Rail, we’re building an entirely new line and have a responsibility to ensure that all stations we’re building or enhancing are appealing, stimulating places at the heart of the community. This only works in practice when you have meaningful local consultation. At London Bridge, we embraced suggestions from Southwark Council to have graduated rents that allowed local businesses to take on some of the retail units. My team will be working closely with stakeholders across the route of East West Rail to discuss similar bold ideas.

We’re still in start-up mode with a fantastic energy about the business. We’ll continue to champion brilliant design and a sustainable approach – taking inspiration from beyond the railway sector – and I look forward to sharing our progress.