Images: Alamy, Monaghan Morris, Leeds Live
What is the cost of fixing Westminster, the ‘theatre of the absurd’? – It’s anyone’s guess!
But Scotland must gladly pay its share!
The scenes from the House of Commons on Tuesday 2 June deserved ridicule. What else does an institution merit when, in the 21st Century, it calls on ‘Honourable and Right Honourable Members’ to queue up in a long line in what some wag termed the ‘conga-line Parliament’, in order simply, to cast a vote?
The absurd scenes of 527 MPs, each ‘six feet six inches’ apart, in a line snaking through and around Westminster’s hallowed halls and courtyards were further enhanced by the speaker, an impatient Lindsay Hoyle repeatedly calling out to MPs to “come on now, keep moving” as they struggled with this institution’s latest idiocy. Not even a reference back to ‘tradition’ could come to the rescue of it’s recurring capacity to demonstrate, to put it kindly, ‘oddness’.
So much so normal for the ‘exceptional’ place that is Westminster. However, there are other things afoot in the Palace of Westminster of which we should be aware. These are the latest steps towards spending a lot of taxpayers’ money on its ‘restoration and renewal’. The discussion over investing £ billions in the wholesale refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster has been a lengthy one: even as there are now tangible signs finally of moving this forward, completion of the project is a long way off into the 2030s.
The organisation which will lead the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster was launched as an independent body separate from Parliament on 8 April 2020. It’s to be known as ‘The Houses of Parliament Restoration and Renewal Sponsor Body’.
The role of the Sponsor Body is to set the scope, budget and timescale for the overall project and to oversee a ‘Delivery Authority’ which will be responsible for procuring contractors and executing the work.
The Sponsor Body Executive is led by CEO Sarah Johnson and advised by a Board which has amongst its members a number of MPs, including the SNP’s Tommy Sheppard. An invitation he and the SNP could not refuse?
It’s reassuring for the taxpayer (isn’t it?) that Ms Johnson has spent the majority of her career working in senior roles on the major infrastructure projects of Crossrail and HS2. Both projects which are running to budget and to schedule? It’s reassuring for the taxpayer (isn’t it?) that the CEO of the new Delivery Authority, David Goldstone, was until recently Chief Operating Officer at the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The MoD, a department of state renowned for its track record of cost control on big projects?
Costings and warnings
I’ve remarked in another post for the TuSC recently how we in Scotland should keep a closer eye on the output of the National Audit Office (NAO). Its work gets little or no coverage in the media in Scotland even though it often examines aspects of public policy and associated spending that either directly or indirectly affect taxpayers and the devolved government in Scotland.
The NAO has recently published (24 April) a report on the ‘Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal Programme’.
A quick scan brought this reader little reassurance that the taxpayer in Scotland is not about to be lumbered with substantial bills over the next decade or more – and for something that we truly do not need to have. To give a flavour of further indications of the ‘absurd’, here are some quotes from the NAO report (with my emphasis)
“The ongoing Elizabeth Tower restoration project (the tower hosting Big Ben) highlights the importance of understanding uncertainties as they can significantly affect the cost and schedule estimates: project costs increased 176% (to £80 million), in part given an over-optimistic view of the project’s risks and a lack of knowledge of the Tower’s condition.”
“The Sponsor Body has not yet developed cost and time estimates as it is unclear what the Programme is delivering, or when. …. Publishing these estimates, without a clear explanation as to what they cover, can create unrealistic expectations among stakeholders. For example, in 2015 stakeholders incorrectly interpreted the £4 billion early options appraisal comparative costs as the Programme’s total cost estimate.”
“The Programme depends on the success of other projects, which further adds to risks and uncertainty. For Parliament to return to the Palace in the 2030s, a series of other projects must also be delivered to time. This includes projects to prepare working spaces for MPs and Lords when they temporarily move out of the Palace during the works. Although the Sponsor Body has responsibility for the Programme, it does not control or influence all these other projects.”
Is there capacity to learn from past errors?
As a warning, the NAO reminds us of examples of financial mismanagement, matters which have also been highlighted recently by the TuSC:
“Failing to recognise critical links between projects increases the risks of them not being delivered. For example, Crossrail Ltd developed a critical path of its interdependencies from an ‘aspirational plan’, which was designed to improve supplier progress rather than provide a reality check on overall progress. In doing so it did not adequately consider interdependencies and therefore the delivery risks. Across defence infrastructure projects, we have also reported that making decisions in isolation, without considering and evaluating their broader impacts, can lead to poor value for money.”
“When at an early stage, complex infrastructure programmes need to consider significant areas of uncertainty such as what will be delivered, how and when. These uncertainties make it challenging to estimate how long programmes may take, or how much they may cost. Our work on High Speed 2 Limited (HS2) showed the consequence of setting budgets and timetables when design assumptions are uncertain at an early stage. HS2 was not able to accurately forecast costs, it underestimated the complexity and did not sufficiently account for this uncertainty within its estimates. Phase One of HS2 is now forecast to cost between 14% and 47% (£3.9 billion to £12.9 billion) more than its available funding.”
Not reassuring is it? It suggests that a blank cheque may need to be issued for this Sponsor Body to use on the taxpayers’ behalf. And this for something Scotland does really not need but as things stand we are set to help pay for, whatever it may end up costing.