Infrastructure plans beyond UK’s capacity to deliver, warn MPs

A PAC report has warned that the UK “will fail to meet” future infrastructure plans, due to a significant shortage of skilled professionals

The report, Delivering value from government investment in major projects, gives a lacklustre image of the future of UK major infrastructure, warning that siloed government departments and the skills shortage will be significant obstacles to delivery.

The House of Commons backbench public accounts committee (PAC) said that government departments “devote too little time and effort ensuring that they maximise the value that comes from projects” and “too focused on the short term” and miss opportunities for added long-term value.

The Government Major Projects Portfolio includes nearly 250 projects, with an estimated total whole-life cost of £805bn, with a special focus on roads, rail, and energy.

14,000 accredited professionals are needed to deliver planned UK infrastructure

Global competition for skills could drive up prices and has already led to “an overreliance on the supply chain, particularly in technical and engineering disciplines,” according to the report.

Nearly 1,000 government project professionals have passed through the government’s major project leadership academy, with this anticipated to double by March 2025. However, this is still only an eighth of the 16,000 accredited professionals needed.

The report also condemned a lack of systemic learning between government departments

“There are signs of improved cross-government working but government still struggles to establish effective governance and accountability arrangements on the most complex projects where multiple departments are involved,” the report says.

“There are government forums for the sharing of lessons about what works well in project delivery, such as the IPA-chaired Government Construction Board.  However, learning across government departments still does not occur systematically, and departments must think more broadly about lessons in maximising long-term value, rather than just about lessons in delivering similar projects.”

A ‘short-term mentality’ dominates UK infrastructure plans

Public Accounts Committee chair Dame Meg Hillier MP said, “Over the coming years, government spending on major infrastructure projects is set to rise to unprecedented levels. Such projects present unique and novel challenges which government must navigate if it is to secure value for public money. Without a robust market for essential skills in place, these are challenges the UK will fail to meet, as shortages push costs up in a globally competitive environment.

“All too often we see projects and programmes that are poorly managed and delivered late and over budget. The failure to ensure projects have robust impact evaluation plans in place is symptomatic of the short-term mentality dominating these processes. The government must encourage cross-departmental learning if we are to avoid repeating past mistakes.”

More support to increase training is crucial

Andrew Baldwin, head of policy and public affairs at the Association for Project Management (APM), the chartered membership body for the project profession, said:

“We have been warning for some time that there is an ever-growing gap between project professionals’ demand and their supply. This is serious, as the skills shortage has impacted on the current Government’s ability to achieve its levelling up programme, will impact on the likelihood of achieving net zero by 2030, and unless addressed, will seriously undermine any attempt to implement a party manifesto post-election.

“More must now be done to support the IPA to further professionalise project and programme management within government. Getting 1,000 per year through the major projects leadership academy is sterling work, but with the Government project profession now measuring 16,000 people, the IPA must be given the resources to rapidly increase training numbers.

“Beyond this, we need to encourage new entrants, either via university or by changing career, and upskill the current workforce much faster.  The Government would also benefit from increasing the number of Chartered project professionals working on major infrastructure projects.”

“Do we learn from the failures of the past? It appears not”

Dr David Crosthwaite, chief economist at the Building Cost Information Service (BCIS) said: “BCIS completely agrees with the proposition by the Public Accounts Committee that the civil service does not have adequate skills to act as an informed client and oversee the delivery of major infrastructure projects and programmes.

“Primarily, skills in cost management, engineering, and project and programme management are lacking and as a result the Government must resort to the use of private sector consultants, at a significant cost to cover the shortfall in expertise.

“It’s questionable whether this approach represents value for public money.

“In the UK there is a litany of infrastructure projects that are delivered late and or over budget. Do we learn from the failures of the past? It appears not.

“Where consultancies are used there is an understandable reluctance, on their part, to share data and information with others.

“So, it’s no surprise that we end up repeating the same mistakes because we are not learning from past performance.

“Data sharing across projects is crucial to address some of the current challenges and this should be better facilitated by the public sector client or the Government client, which need a much more hands-on approach to delivering the infrastructure the country needs.

“We need more well-managed major projects to stimulate the economy and get Britain growing again.”

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