UK 'lacks skills' for major infrastructure, say MPs

A report from the House of Commons backbench public accounts committee (PAC) says that there is a shortage of project professionals to deliver the national infrastructure programme.

Furthermore, in an indictment of the Infrastructure Projects Authority, the report says that the silo structure of government means that sponsor departments are failing to learn from the failures of other departments.

The report, Delivering value from government investment in major projects, says that skills shortages coupled with a lack of robust evaluation of projects risks value for money

Skills shortages in technical and engineering disciplines are set to worsen as gaps in the UK’s workforce are compounded by competition from major global development projects, it says. Project management and design are also areas of concern, and skilled professionals in senior positions in particular.  Of 16,000 project professionals that are required to gain accreditation from the government’s major project leadership academy, only 1,000 have done so. This failure to build market capacity could result in higher prices for scarce skills, the MPs say.

In March 2023, the government major projects portfolio included 244 projects with an estimated total whole-life cost of £805bn. Despite this level of investment, the PAC believes that government departments are failing to devote the time and effort needed to ensure they maximise the value that comes from projects. Only 8% of the £432bn spend on major projects in 2019 had impact evaluation plans in place and around two-thirds had no plans at all. This is despite effective evaluation being required to provide evidence for what works, demonstrate value and to make the case for or against further investment. Thus decisions are being made in the absence of evidence, risking value for money.

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“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.

It adds: “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. The IPA acknowledged it could do more to challenge departments to learn from one project to another. Our February 2024 report on cross-government working also highlighted a lack of routine data sharing between departments and poor arrangements for sharing best practice and learning.”

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.”

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