Public infrastructure projects 'missed opportunity' to centralise

“Overcomplicated systems” for commissioning and delivering 11 public infrastructure projects in Northern Ireland led to time delays and overspending, according to a report.

An inquiry report, by the Northern Ireland Assembly Public Accounts Committee (PAC), found a total of £700m had been overspent over eight years as a result of a lack of centralised systems, risk mitigation planning, and project performance monitoring.

The PAC said the system for commissioning and delivering major capital projects is “over-complicated” while staff working on the projects did not have adequate experience.

It added: “The failure to centralise procurement represents a missed opportunity to streamline the public sector procurement process, reduce waste and generate cost efficiencies for the public sector and industry.” 

It recommended the public sector undertakes a further review of procurement arrangements to assess the extent to which alternative structures could improve project delivery as a matter of urgency.

“The committee also recommends that departments are encouraged to make increased use of standardised procurement approaches and standard contracts with few bespoke clauses as a means of reducing public sector and bidder costs,” it said. 

Time delays and overruns incurred could have been avoided if departments had fully planned project risks and engaged adequately with planners, local communities and special interest groups, the report said 

The report added there is currently no single oversight body, but highlighted the need for central monitoring of major capital projects to bring more transparency and accountability.

It also recommended incentive-based clauses in public sector contracts to improve projects, rather than penalties to deal with poor contractor performance. 

Recommendations were also made to improve delivery of future infrastructure projects by strengthening accountability and monitoring, and ensuring procurement construction professionals have enough experience and training to lead projects.

William Humphrey, member of the Legislative Assembly and chairperson of the PAC, said: “During our inquiry into major capital projects, frankly we were shocked by the delays and cost overruns which were apparent across the entire range of high value and flagship projects. The £700m cost overruns that have been incurred could have been better invested in our schools, hospitals, roads and transport networks.

“In short, not only was the system for commissioning and delivering major capital projects over-complicated, it was clear that many of the senior staff did not have the relevant experience or expertise to allow them to deliver these projects within the agreed timescales and budgets. This is an issue that has been raised repeatedly by this committee in relation to its review of major capital projects.

“We were also disturbed to find that there is no single oversight body whose function it is to ensure that projects are being delivered properly. We strongly recommend that Northern Ireland, like other jurisdictions, should have this kind of oversight body.”

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