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The NUAR Economic Benefits Paper; do you always believe what you read?



In response to my recent interview, published by New Civil Engineer, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said “The costs and benefits set out in the economic case are fully sourced and researched, and it is entirely false to suggest otherwise”.

Avoiding Damage to underground & overhead utility assets

A strong denial, so it is useful to dissect the Geospatial Commission’s Economic Case to judge the robustness of that response. I am very firmly of the view that the costs and benefits research has been misunderstood, misrepresented, or both.

Let’s remember that the business case for NUAR is based on a 30% reduction in strikes so let’s look at how they have justified this.

Let’s start with the positives. There are bits that are justified, notably that the average cost of a strike is circa £3,000 and that, in accordance with the University of Birmingham’s research, there is a substantial cost multiplier when you add in the wider effects of the strikes.

I’m sorry that I said positives as I’m going to have to stop there.

60,000. What is this figure? It’s been referenced plenty of times as the number of strikes that take place annually in the UK and I understand why it’s been used- we’ve even used it occasionally as the best guess. But, and it’s a big but, it’s not a figure that anyone can source nor properly justify. To develop a project costing tens of millions (all funded by the taxpayer) based on a figure that no-one can substantiate is scandalous.

So, let’s forget that dangerous assumption and assume that 60,000 is correct. The next fundamental assumption is that NUAR will reduce 30% of these strikes. To do this, the NUAR Team took a report (that I co-authored) and applied some interesting logic. Please see a key extract below:


Available from: Date accessed: 21st February 2022

The first three columns of the table above are taken from a report I put together in my role with @USAG (Utility Strike Avoidance Group). Despite being in close contact with the Geospatial Commission representatives (and a former member of the misleadingly named Advisory Group), they didn’t bother asking me for my thoughts.

If they had, they would have found out that their starting assumption (before any opinions) was double what it should have been, as each strike had two causes; one in planning and one in execution.  I am not sure what effort and cost went into developing this paper but it would have helped if the sources were properly analysed before relying on them. This alone means the proposed benefits have a maximum of 15% rather than 30%- this is frankly embarrassing. When you start looking at the justifications used, that 15% is very difficult to justify.

I don’t think the errors in the NUAR arguments made in the fourth column of the table above really need any explanation. To break it down briefly, my questions are below:

1.    Do you believe it is realistic that there will be an INSTANT improvement to the accuracy and understanding of circa 1,500,000 kilometres of network assets across the country and that every asset will magically be perfectly accurate?

2.    Would access to (apparently) improved mapping data mean that excavators would be more likely to use the necessary locating equipment on site? Or might it be less likely? Would a mapping platform really solve EVERY problem locating assets on site?

3.    Would a different mapping system be likely to solve EVERY cultural / behavioural / procurement influenced issue at all excavating organisation, from the largest infrastructure project to those just working on their own at home on a Sunday afternoon? In fact, would a mapping system be likely to have ANY impact on behavioural issues on site?

Even on the unlikely assumption that you had a system that protected all assets, with perfect accuracy (a man can dream) which was available to all, then there will still be opportunity for damages to occur by people on site

–      not reading plans correctly

–      not locating the assets properly or

–      not following general procedures on site (for a whole host of different reasons).

Anecdotally, a major utility, who are LSBUD Members, recently told us that 95% of all damages to their network are caused by human error.

To suggest that a mapping system could eradicate all problems is frankly ludicrous and I cannot believe that this lightweight and feeble justification has made it to the final document. If this doesn’t make you question the paper then you are much less cynical than me!

Incidentally, these improvements (according to the NUAR Team) would be immediate. 150,000+ users across the country instantly behaving properly on site, all down to a mapping platform.

I am lucky to be able to interact with a very broad range of people in my role. Even with the highest performing operators, the risk of strikes comes from all areas; from those replacing a garden fence to those building HS2. It therefore beggars belief that the NUAR platform will only therefore be available to statutory undertakers, their direct contractors (and whichever group they add, seemingly on a whim as the project progresses)- their proposed impact on strike analysis makes absolutely no reference to the fact that NUAR will not be available to all.

It is my absolute belief that without knowing enough about the problem (strikes), providing the solution is impossible. Even if it is just WHO was responsible for the strike, it would be something. For example, if developers or farmers cause the highest risk, then you need to focus on that group; the same can be said for any group of people that have a spade in their hands.

From a similar perspective, Scotland is being ignored by NUAR as apparently strikes aren’t a problem in Scotland due to VAULT.  Strange when that system only covers works in the road and for specific users- only part of the geography and certainly only part of the demographic. Again, no reference that the USAG strike data reflects strikes across all of Great Britain so yet another overstated impact.

It’s as if there is a magical portal that currently protects the likes of SGN, SP Energy and SSE (as well as many others) from third party works in Scotland that cannot be named. Are we the perceived bad guys that cannot be named in this tale of fantasy? A good family friend has a wonderful saying, “Never let the truth spoil a good story.” Feels remarkable apt for the people behind this project.

If you are interested, asking the following questions to anyone involved in NUAR would really help make a difference:

1.    Where is the evidence for the 60,000 strikes? What definite evidence is there of this figure to justify spending tens of millions of pounds of taxpayer money?

2.    Which users damage assets? Will ALL of these user groups be able to search for assets through NUAR?

3.    What happens to those that aren’t allowed access to NUAR? Should there be a two tier system to strike avoidance?

4.    Will all these perceived benefits be instant?

As ever, pleased to hear thoughts through DMs or comments made. Thank you.


Richard Broome, Managing Director of LSBUD