Civil engineers have rejected suggestions from the head of the National Audit Office (NAO) that Government should rationalise its portfolio of major projects or see it ‘come to a halt under its own weight’ as the civil service is over-stretched by Brexit.
In a speech on Thursday evening (21 July), Sir Amyas Morse, comptroller and auditor general at the NAO, said projects like HS2 show that the civil service is already ‘over-committed’.
NAO head Sir Amyas Morse
Sir Amyas said: ‘We must start by not pretending that the civil service can deliver whatever ministers throw at it. Government must get much better at prioritising its activities and projects.’
He pointed out that the HS2 project had seen ‘costs rising and timetables being extended’ and was ‘relying on developing a whole new, cheaper, supply chain to bring that project in within its planned cost’.
‘And this can contribute to unrealistic expectations of what is achievable,’ he added.
Sir Amyas said the Government’s ‘enormous’ portfolio of major projects ‘could profoundly transform our national infrastructure and public services’.
However, he added: ‘We need to ask ourselves, can the public sector deliver Hinckley Point C, a third runway, HS2, a Northern Powerhouse, nuclear decommissioning, Trident renewal and restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster all at the same time?
‘All these projects are drawing on the same pool of skills and many of these contain optimism bias that they will be able to meet their skill needs at an appropriate cost.’
In addition, he said: ‘Brexit brings with it a completely new layer of unknowns and requirements. It will be a major upheaval for the public sector for years to come and it can fairly be described as an “abnormal challenge”.
‘But we can already see the beginnings of existing activities being denuded of capability as civil servants are pulled away to Brexit-related activities.’
Responding to Sir Amyas’ comments, Marie-Claude Hemming, head of external affairs for the Civil Engineering Contractors Association, said it was sensible for ministers to take a measured approach to public spending in the new economic climate, but added: ‘This is not the time to take our foot off the pedal when it comes to major infrastructure projects.
‘Investment in infrastructure is a proven driver of economic growth. Due to the uncertainty facing the UK economy over the implications of Brexit, the Government must ensure that investment in major infrastructure goes ahead.
‘Some of the projects that Sir Amyas has mentioned are, in any case, being delivered by the private sector, but those that require public investment are vital to the UK’s long-term economic security,’ she added.