MPs attack ‘perennial inability’ to deliver projects on time and budget

1 February 2021

The UK government must address its “perennial inability to manage and deliver projects on time and budget” to navigate post-pandemic recovery, MPs have warned. 

In a report the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said it was concerned the same issues crop up “time and time again” in the delivery of major projects, such as “programmes not keeping to cost or schedule, a lack of transparency in their progress, and weaknesses in leadership and governance”.

High-profile examples of these issues included the delivery of HS2, the Emergency Services Network and Universal Credit, the report said. 

The PAC added it was “concerned about the value for money risks resulting from the significant increase in investment, speed of delivery and changes to how the government makes investment decisions”. 

Last year, the government’s budget set out an ambitious plan for £600bn investment over the next five years, and it also announced a commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 which will “add to further challenges”. 

“This committee questioned the capacity of both government and the private sector to deliver large increases in activity efficiently and effectively,” the report said.

“If not managed carefully, the benefits of proper scrutiny and development of programmes could become lost in a rush to deliver, and spending decisions could be made without sufficient demonstration of their value,” it said. 

The report also questioned the ability of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) to ensure those delivering projects achieve the level of improvement required.

The PAC said it had raised concerns in the past that the IPA – the government’s centre of expertise for infrastructure and major projects – is “not sufficiently independent of government to confidently challenge it”.

It added “skills and leadership remain a persistent problem in delivering major projects”, particularly in areas such as civil engineering and digital systems. 

“While the tenure of Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) has improved slightly in recent years, SROs still typically manage four or five different projects and so do not get the time to manage them effectively,” it said. 

Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, said: “The government’s perennial inability to manage and deliver projects on time and budget must be addressed if the country is to safely navigate through to the end of the pandemic and beyond. The challenges of the pandemic have shown what can be achieved by government in short order – and how badly it can fail.

“We have made too many reports, covering billions and billions of pounds of taxpayers' money wasted by cost and timetable overruns, or on projects ‘parked’ or abandoned after sinking massive resources for years. We want to see lasting improvements made to the way in which government delivers major projects – it will not be acceptable to keep seeing past problems repeated.”

The report comes as the shadow transport minister criticised the government’s handling of the HS2 project over “ballooning costs”.

Shadow transport minister Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi told MPs he was “deeply concerned” over the government’s approach to HS2. 

In October, the government confirmed costs for the project had risen by £800m due to new “cost pressures” emerging.

"I sincerely hope that cities like Leeds are not going to miss out on the benefits of HS2 due to government failure to get a grip of ballooning costs,” Singh Dhesi said.

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