A new parliamentary report has claimed that major infrastructure projects risk wasting billions of pounds and leaving a legacy of white elephants without major cultural changes in how they are delivered.
UK government plans to boost growth and ‘level up’ the economy need to be well thought through, responsive to local need, and delivered through effective, efficient and transparent major projects, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has warned.
In its report - Delivering the Government’s infrastructure commitments through major projects - the committee cautions that the hundreds of billions dedicated by the government for new infrastructure projects risk being squandered without better co-ordination of local projects, long-term tracking of performance and greater transparency over delivery.
The report also calls on the government to clarify its overall aims for major infrastructure spending as soon as possible and provide greater detail on how it will support economic development and regional growth.
The report points out that the government’s Major Projects Portfolio currently comprises 125 projects worth £448bn. After the 2019 general election, the government announced its intention to drive growth and ‘level up’ the economy through investment in infrastructure. This was followed by the announcement of £640bn in investment for projects across the UK and a further £5bn in Coronavirus ‘bounce back’ investment.
The report’s summary and recommendations include:
Developing a coherent national strategy:
At present, says the report, the overall aims of this significant boost in infrastructure spending remain ill-defined. The government must clarify what it means by ‘levelling up’ and set out a coherent plan for co-ordinated infrastructure investment that will deliver defined long-term benefits at a local and national level.
The National Infrastructure Strategy should be published as soon as possible and before a penny is spent on new projects. The government must clearly set out its objectives for the economy and how planned infrastructure investment will support these aims. It should also include an assessment of regional or local needs, and provide the central principles on which the value of individual infrastructure projects will be assessed and how they will support wider development.
The Cabinet Office must take an active role in ensuring infrastructure programmes are co-ordinated and avoid a scattergun approach that has plagued major projects historically.
Delivering long-term benefits:
Individual projects should be set up and run with a focus on achieving stated benefits. The principle factor in judging the success of a project must be how much it realises its stated benefits, not simply whether it has been delivered on time or on budget. Mechanisms should be put in place that enable greater scrutiny of this performance in the long-term.
Identifying and achieving benefits in regional investment:
The government will need to understand how it can take local needs into account when developing infrastructure projects. Too often local consultation begins after fundamental decisions have already been made, leading to project delays and infrastructure that neither meets local need nor has full public support. All projects should include proper consultation, proportionate to their scale and profile, as part of the early decision making phase and take appropriate action to respond to its findings. Any project failing to prove it has done so adequately should not get treasury or IPA funding.
Ensuring the right skills at the right level:
Secretaries of state and ministers must be better prepared with the skills needed to develop and drive delivery of major projects. A scarcity of appropriately skilled people and salary constraints in the public sector has also led to ongoing staffing shortages, particularly at SRO level. This lack of capability has the potential to act as a significant block on the government’s ability to achieve its goals in infrastructure.
Publishing the report, committee chair William Wragg said: “Developing grand infrastructure projects must not become an end in itself and we must move away from the short-term view that measures the value of major projects in terms of whether they are finished on time and at the expected cost.
“As the nation embarks on a period of significant infrastructure spending we must focus on how much they deliver the benefits they set out to achieve and were the basis for being given the go ahead.
“The government must clarify its overarching aims for this strategy – how infrastructure spending will support economic growth, what ‘levelling up’ means in practice and how they will be achieved.
“We must also see improvement in how projects are developed at a local level. It will be critical not just to get local support for infrastructure projects, but getting local input in identifying problems and developing solutions must be better supported and become a feature of programme development at a much earlier stage.
“Investing time at the outset to make sure everyone is clear about the aims and proposed benefits, alongside a change in the culture of how major projects are developed and managed, should mean that this transformative change is achievable.”
The report was published on the same day that the Infrastructure and Projects Authority announced the appointment of Jon Loveday as its new director of infrastructure.