Clegg lacks evidence for Whitehall 'barrier' jibe on infrastructure

Barry Batchelor/PA Archive/Press Association Images

By Joshua.Chambers

21 Sep 2011

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg last week attacked the civil service as a "barrier" that prevents infrastructure projects from being delivered on time – but CSW research into the three examples he cited as evidence has revealed that in at least two cases, the delays were caused by problems in the private sector.

Speaking at the London School of Economics, Clegg complained that “failure to deliver major infrastructure projects on time, on budget, is a perennial problem in the UK”. Announcing that ministers will be getting involved in 40 key projects in order to prevent any delays, he said that the “barrier I want to talk about is actually within government: Whitehall.”

Clegg cited three examples of delayed infrastructure schemes – the Jubilee Line extension, Wembley Stadium’s construction and improvements to the West Coast Mainline – before stating that “the list goes on and on. And too often, Whitehall is part of the problem. We have to break this cycle.”
In fact, the Wembley Stadium and West Coast Mainline projects were largely managed within the private sector, while the Jubilee line work fell behind when the private contractor went bust (see below).

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Tessa Jowell said: “It is a shame that Nick Clegg could not be bothered to get his facts straight before criticising hard-working public servants.”

Jonathan Baume, head of the FDA civil service trade union, suggested that the speech was designed for “political reasons” rather than to address a specific problem, adding that “there is a danger that as we enter the party conference season, politicians across the board find Whitehall and the civil service an easy scapegoat for problems that in reality are much harder to address.”

Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office from 1988 to 2008, told CSWthat while the civil service was involved, these projects “were not the real responsibility of Whitehall, even though of course a lot of the money ultimately came from the taxpayer.”

CSWasked Clegg’s office what analysis his speech was based on, but no details were supplied.

Clegg's examples:

Wembley Stadium: Wembley Stadium was the responsibility of the Football Association. When the project ran into serious difficulties, the FA wrote to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport requesting assistance. The National Audit Office report pointed out that it was a private sector project largely funded by private capital, criticised the FA’s procurement of contractor Multiplex, and called DCMS’s intervention in the project “an example of well-managed risk taking”.

West Coast Mainline:The 2006 National Audit Office report into the delays stated that the upgrade was being undertaken by the privatised utility Railtrack and Virgin Rail Group, which operates the West Coast passenger rail franchise. Problems arose because Railtrack tried to fit inappropriate signalling equipment.

Jubilee Upgrade: A senior official working for the Department for Transport during the planning of this scheme told CSW that Margaret Thatcher negotiated the project with Canary Wharf developers Olympia and York. It was to involve substantial private funding until the company collapsed, causing delays. CSW also spoke to Lord Tunnicliffe, managing director of publicly-owned company London Underground Ltd from 1988 to 1998. He said: "Whitehall, in the form of civil servants, were not in any way responsible for the delay and overspend; indeed they were universally helpful. The reasons for the delay and overspend were varied and complex and perhaps in retrospect, largely inevitable. There was some delay to the start of the project which created delay and cost but this delay was wholly political."

London Underground Limited became Transport for London in 2000 and signed a public-private partnership deal with Tube Lines. Last year, TfL purchased Tube Lines because of significant delays to upgrades

CSW is conducting a survey on how the civil service can help foster economic growth and infrastructure development.

Read the most recent articles written by Joshua.Chambers - Interview: Alison Munro

Share this page