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UK lacks skills and capacity for big infrastructure projects, MPs warn

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The UK government lacks the necessary skills and capacity to deliver on its plans to oversee £805bn spending on infrastructure such as the High Speed 2 rail link, according to an influential cross-party group of MPs.

The House of Commons public accounts committee said on Wednesday that while the government’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority had a list of 244 new road, rail and energy projects, Whitehall departments were failing to spend enough time ensuring they would deliver value for money.

The committee said the IPA, which reports to the Treasury and Cabinet Office, had told it this was because of “a lack of project management skills in the civil service and . . . particular shortages in technical and engineering skills”.

As a result, government departments had become over-reliant on consultancies, and construction and engineering companies, the PAC noted, putting the state in a weak position because it could not act as an “intelligent client”.

Although the government was accrediting senior civil servants through its major project leadership academy, it had trained just 1,000 out of the 16,000 professionals it said it needed, according to the PAC.

The committee warned that a lack of trained staff was likely to increase owing to competition from other countries, particularly Saudi Arabia.

The PAC said that if government improved project management skills, it could better deliver infrastructure and mitigate the risks of labour shortages in the supply chain.

It cited HS2, which has soared in cost to as much as £67bn despite the route being shortened, as an example of where “the budget was set before the plans were sufficiently mature”. 

This approach meant ministers and officials were “putting value for money at unnecessary risk”, the MPs said.

Dame Meg Hillier, Labour MP and committee chair, said: “Far 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.”

In December 2019, the Cabinet Office found that the impact of just 8 per cent of £432bn spent on major projects had been evaluated, the PAC said.

Noble Francis, economics director at the Construction Products Association, an industry body, said the government was “consistently poor in working out what it was actually looking to get out of major infrastructure projects, analysing how it is doing during projects and learning lessons from previous projects”.

This was despite most improvements in quality, efficiency, time and cost of infrastructure delivery coming from such evaluation, he added.

The government said:  “Speeding up delivery, while ensuring projects are effectively managed and deliver value for money, is a priority.

“Upskilling staff is a key part of this and we recently published a new framework to enable civil servants working on public projects to utilise AI to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their delivery. We are on target to meet our long-term ambition to accredit 16,000 civil servants as government project delivery professionals.”

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