3rd October 2019
Delivering infrastructure projects on time and to budget – what’s so difficult?

Major UK infrastructure projects have been receiving their fair share of unwanted press attention in recent months. Back in August, the BBC revealed evidence showing that both the government and bosses working on the HS2 high-speed railway line had known the project was over budget and behind schedule several years ago, despite continual insistences to the contrary. Similarly, Crossrail, currently Europe’s largest railway infrastructure project, has also suffered significant delays and spiralling costs. Due to open in 2018, the launch of Crossrail (also known as the Elizabeth Line) was pushed back to March 2021, and at time of writing the project is £2 billion over budget. To make matters worse, Crossrail boss Mark Wild recently announced that, although optimistic, he couldn’t guarantee that the line would be open by 2021.

Not just a British problem

The sheer amount of newspaper inches dedicated to the seeming inability of British infrastructure projects to be delivered on time and to budget would have us believe that we Brits might have a particular problem. Not so. Berlin’s Brandenburg Airport, originally intended to open in October 2011, has been plagued by long delays caused by structural problems, major technical faults and safety failings. So far, it has cost triple the original estimate. With a new proposed opening date of October 2020, many now-cynical Berliners are taking a ‘believe it when we see it’ approach to proceedings. So, why is it that these projects, which are supposed to be meticulously planned and costed beforehand, frequently go so wrong?

It’s not as easy as all that…

When we read new stories like these, it’s easy to forget the enormous scale of such projects and wonder why people can’t just get their acts together. But these projects can cost tens of billions of pounds, involve a huge number of different stakeholders, employ contractors and sub-contractors across the whole industry, and can even be derailed by events beyond anyone’s control – poor weather or site conditions, or events that simply can’t be foreseen, can all hold up progress.

…but things could be better

However, there are things that could be done better. In a report published this year, the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE) identified that pressure to keep cost predictions low in order to win the contract initially can hinder accurate forecasting and cause problems further down the line. The report went on to say that “Scrutiny is too often focused on lowest capital cost whilst the whole life benefit of a project is often discarded.” Indeed, a recent YouGov poll revealed that the British public also believed that politicians should talk more about the benefits of major projects, rather than just the costs.

Mace, the international consultancy and construction company, also recently published research identifying some of the reasons why large projects often go awry, and making suggestions for how to improve the situation. The report agrees with ICE, identifying that political pressure often outweighs the need for a thorough cost-benefit analysis, while there is also often pressure to provide predictions and price estimates before they can possibly be deemed accurate. Its suggestions for improvement include establishing a UK Department for Growth, bringing all the disparate bodies that currently deal with infrastructure delivery together under one roof; creating an independent scrutiny panel to challenge unrealistic deadlines and cost estimates; and using Brexit to revolutionise UK public sector procurement.  

The future for major projects

With Mace estimating that up to 80% of large infrastructure projects are delivered late and over budget, it appears that there is no simple answer to the issue. However, the number of reports being published on the subject suggests that the problem is under significant scrutiny across the industry. It remains to be seen whether the government will adopt the policy recommendations outlined in Mace’s, and other similar, reports. What is certain, however, is that it will take a monumental effort across the whole industry to make changes to drastically improve planning practices for projects such as these going forwards.