The year ahead: 'The government needs to prove it can be trusted on infrastructure decisions'

Written by Tom Forth on 21 January 2020 in Opinion
Opinion

In our January issue, CSW asks experts to give their thoughts on the new government’s policy priorities. In this entry, Tom Forth calls for transparency in government spending decisions

The London Crossrail project. Photo: PA

Calls to “rip up the government rulebook” to help rebalance the UK economy are growing louder. Whispers that echoed around the town halls of the English Midlands and North for decades recently found their way into the UK’s industrial strategy as the promise of a “rebalancing toolkit”. And with a new team at No. 10, there are increasing suggestions of finishing that job and changing the Treasury’s rules so that the concerns about investments in struggling regions with a weak business case can be more easily dismissed.

Most of these suggestions are unnecessary. There are already mechanisms within government models that allow for considerations of environmental and social factors. This allows investment in places where the economic case is weaker. And ultimately investment is political anyway, with little public evidence that investment that business cases play a significant role in which schemes are funded.

People with knowledge and experience of the current systems for allocating central government investment within the UK have good reason to defend what already exists. For example, in international comparisons of the technical aspects of systems for evaluating transport investment, the UK does very well.


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Sadly, the UK does less well when we measure outcomes. An investment evaluation system which claims to prioritise economic growth has not been sufficient to lift the UK economy as a whole above any other country in northern Europe. Most of the poorest regional economies in northern Europe remain within the UK. Something is broken and must change.

It remains essential that data is collected, that models are built, and that together these are used to challenge political thinking before investment decisions are taken. But the current centralised and secretive system for doing this modelling within the UK has failed.

There is no evidence that best-value public transport investments have been made, and both the Department for Transport and the Treasury refuse to release the investment analyses and business cases that would prove it.

UK government research and development spending, almost uniquely in the developed world, occurs in completely different parts of the country to where businesses choose to spend, and the government bodies responsible for that allocation are well behind continental equivalents in sharing their analysis and thinking on why this is.

Across all departments, the UK government is poor at engaging with outside experts.

The civil service must make use of the government’s commitment to transparency to release its economic models and business cases along with the data that powers them. Beyond Whitehall, few of us believe that the process for assigning investment within the UK works as claimed. We have no reason to trust what we cannot see. If that trust is earned, calls to rip up the rulebook will calm down.

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Tom Forth
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Tom Forth is head of data at the Open Data Institute Leeds

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