Bill Jamieson: Edinburgh tram mess far from first

A NEW book lays bare the colossal cost of major projects doomed to over-run their budgets and voter patience, writes Bill Jamieson

The Edinburgh Trams project is the latest in a long line of botched government projects. Picture: Ian Rutherford

A hot summer, politicians under pressure for bold new ideas and febrile party conferences looming: the perfect breeding ground for that most toxic disease of public life: the Great Government Blunder.

From the poll tax to the Millennium Dome, ID cards to the Child Support Agency, PFI nightmares to calamitous IT projects: the public landscape is littered with the wreckage of great government schemes gone horribly wrong. To this ignominious list, two contemporary obsessions may about to be added: the high speed rail project between London and the north of England (HS2) and the push for welfare savings through the introduction of Universal Credits.

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Scotland, far from being immune, is up with the worst: the debacle of the Holyrood Parliament, the City of Edinburgh tram catastrophe and the push for so-called cheap energy from wind farms. Each triggers a blistering explosion of voter anger and frustration: why did they let this happen?

Each new project is hailed as one of compelling vision, the journey we must make, the train we can’t afford not to catch. Each one is branded as a bold new dawn championed by pundits and political leaders. But all too often, it is followed by Darkness at Noon. The inspiring vision collapses into a heap of rubble. Billions of pounds of public money are shovelled into the fiery furnace of failure. The legacy? Acrimonious post-mortem and smouldering anger.

The phenomenon of the constantly recurring public catastrophe is the theme of one of the hottest books of the season and set for a big promotional launch next month in the middle of the party conference season: The Blunders of Our Governments. Written by two seasoned observers, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, it provides a deeply depressing catalogue of major projects championed at the highest level that have turned into turkeys.

The question is not just “why do they happen?”, but why they keep happening with unfailing regularity.

We pride ourselves on having one of the most enlightened parliamentary democracies in the world. It is enabled by a civil service that has revelled for decades in its comparison to a purring Rolls-Royce. The brightest minds are drawn into think-tanks and policy-making. We have parliamentary committees, watchdogs and regulatory agencies of all sorts, serried ranks of quangos, all busily monitoring, assessing and evaluating. And we have legions of well-heeled management consultants called in to second guess and opine on every new initiative of consequence and at huge fee cost. Yet the blunders, far from diminishing, just seem to get bigger. Why?

Arguably, the biggest puzzle of all is why, once some bold new project shows early signs of misconception, mismanagement or fatigue, there is no mechanism by which these cannot be readily halted or scrapped. We do not seem to have an eject button, let alone a hand brake. We plough on to the bitter end, not content until the catastrophe is complete, the budget over-run beyond rectification, and voters are up in arms. Ministers are dragged on to BBC Newsnight to mutter in that tone of mystified, self-pitying, earnestness: “We have ordered a thorough investigation. Lessons will be learnt.”

Many tomes have been written on individual government blunders, each one viewed in isolation as if it was a most rare and improbable thing, a one-off, each separated from the other and insulated by ministerial or government change.

This book presents monumental example after example that begs searching questions on whether we are dealing with a systemic fault. Whether Old Labour or New, Conservative or coalition, the blunders keep on coming. Damage to public trust has been enormous and the waste of taxpayer funds an outrageous scandal.

The poll tax “did” for Margaret Thatcher. The Millennium Dome was an expensive farce. Individual Learning Accounts buckled under massive fraud. PPI schemes collapsed, leaving mountains of debt. IT fiascos (NHS to the fore) became commonplace. Now come the “bedroom tax”, HS2 (who now seriously believes government protestations that its estimates are robust?) and growing rumbles over the efficiency and effectiveness of the Universal Credits system.

In Scotland, the Holyrood building scandal cast the opening years of the Scottish Parliament under a cloud, while the tram project has turned the capital into an international joke. How could such schemes have been so under-estimated, their complexities misunderstood and dismissed and their perpetrators allowed to assume, with all the insouciance of the Bourbons, that public money would always be there to mop up the carnage?

The push for onshore wind farms has continued oblivious to evidence of output far lower than capacity, grants to encourage more turbines and payments to stop them turning and concerns over damage inflicted to other rural economy businesses. Here is an ideological pursuit, vast consumer charges and subsidies allowing turbines to masquerade as low-cost energy. There is no reverse button. The juggernaut charges on.

The counter-view of all this is that the critique is itself short-sighted. In the greater sweep of things, who will remember by how much a grand project over-ran or that an IT system failed? Scotland has a functioning parliament and next year (hopefully) its capital city will have a tram system in operation, with critics clamouring for an early extension. How else is it to deal with horrendous traffic congestion?

As for wind farms, the technology will surely improve and they will make a big contribution to reducing our dependency on imported energy. Let’s not lose sight, say the apologists, of the greater gain – and that some mega projects, such as the London Olympics, were a roaring success.

But the legacy is all too often negative. The blunder projects are the products of a political system thirsty for displays of activism and biased towards immediate or short-term results. Politicians need to impress the media, or the voters – or themselves. Complexities of execution are brushed aside. Those who approve and initiate stand well away from the sharp end and those charged to undertake and deliver. Even projects subjected to endless assessment reports and planning protocols head for failure.

And this activism is driven by a volatile economic cycle with its promotion of “dash for growth” and the revolving door culture at the head of key ministries such as transport (no fewer than ten transport secretaries since 2000). Who can truly be said to be accountable?

The Blunders of Our Governments is a long overdue reminder of our capacity for repeated and colossal failure. It comes as Westminster is already preparing for the next election. New eye-catching initiatives will abound. Platform speeches will denounce market failure, while a veil is quietly drawn over the failures of government.

So, will this book act as a corrective? Come on. When the cameras roll, who’s not up for the next bold new project that’s a certain winner?

• The Blunders of Our Governments will be published on 19 September by Oneworld