We must stop making up the budgets and timescales for big infrastructure projects on the back of a fag packet

Infrastructure investment and procurement are critical functions of any Government. When done correctly, they can lead to improved transport connectivity, new housing, delivery of vital services such as water and sewerage, telecoms, and the correct energy infrastructure needed to keep the lights on. They can also deliver regeneration, additional inward investment, construction jobs, and long-term employment opportunities. However, when done poorly, they can lead to increased costs, interminable delays, and less money available for other projects.

In my recent Adjournment Debate, I highlighted several projects where Westminster has failed to deliver infrastructure projects properly. The overspend on HS2 Phase 1 is estimated to be £45bn, while the overspend on Hinkley Point C is estimated to be £30bn. The Shared Services network replacement has seen a £10bn overspend, and Crossrail has seen a £3bn overspend. In addition, there have been overspends on the Great Western electrification project and the Ministry of Defence procurement plan, which has a £17bn shortfall.

The original HS2 plan aimed to extend to Scotland, promoting a modal shift from flying and enhancing business productivity. However, the focus shifted to freeing up capacity on existing lines, particularly the West Coast mainline, as costs escalated. The scaled-down project may only reduce Birmingham-London travel times by 20 minutes and the chosen rolling stock will be slower than existing trains. The Government was warned about this but opted for speed over practicality.

With the removal of the Golborne link north of Birmingham, it begs the question whether the high-speed trains really will ever run to Scotland. If they do, it will mean a less direct route; longer journey times north of Birmingham; overall journey times slower than existing Avanti services and the trains stopping at Carstairs to decouple as Edinburgh/Glasgow services. Doesn’t sound appealing, does it?

The project is a classic mix of initial gold plating in terms of demanding the absolute fastest speeds and therefore track alignment and design implications; politician interference on route choice and extent of tunnelling; insufficient upfront work to determine accurate costs and options; politician panic at increasing costs and continual reviews costing more money and allowing the project to be pared down, but not in any strategic process. Not having clearly defined strategic outcomes and benefits baked into original procurement and doing the ‘easy’ option of starting in the south, then has made the completion of the southern leg the be-all and end-all.

And given all this pain, are we now really to believe the Government has now come up with a comprehensive alternate strategic plan for transport in just a few weeks for the £36bn they believe HS2 Phase 2 would cost? Budget overruns and delays on many of these projects are inevitable as clearly there are limited ground investigations and upfront designs on these new projects.

Evidently, Government policies must be consistent and clear allowing investors and contractors to look ahead and have confidence in supply chain development. The cost of electrification of rail in England is 50% more expensive per kilometre compared to Scotland. The Scottish Government has a long-term plan of electrification, whereas south of the border there has been continual chopping and changing.

Successful infrastructure delivery means accurately assessing the need for a project. What are strategic aims, and how to provide the best solution? Do accurate option assessments, including assessment of risk and ground conditions and select a preferred option with an accurate estimate. Have regular gateway assessments before procurement and have early contractor involvement. Fully understand the consequences of interference and changes to design. Have a system where issues are flagged up and discussed promptly and not buried for later.

As a civil engineer, I grasp the essentials of successful project delivery. Simultaneously, as a politician, I recognise the allure of headline projects and the inclination to publicise spending. However, I am acutely aware that budgeting and timescales on the back of a fag packet is a hostage to fortune. It is time for more politicians in charge of infrastructure to acknowledge this reality.

Alan Brown MP

Alan Brown is the Scottish National Party MP for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, and was elected in 2015.