I somewhat mischievously responded to a tweet from Chuka Umuna, the Labour shadow business secretary, that the reason that only 1.2% (7 out of 576) government infrastructure projects was ‘completed’ was because there was no-one left (in the civil service) to implement them.
This was flippant, admittedly, but it is possibly not too far from the truth.
Back in the heady days of the new New Labour government, Gordon Brown continued with Tory spending plans for the first two years. This included a severe squeeze on government capital projects. Then, after Comprehensive Spending Review 1998, Gordon turned the taps on – for both capital and current spending.
The results were not as expected however – at least not straight away. By 2001 the government was running a £10bn underspend, as I pointed out at the time in this BBC online piece.
At the time the then Cabinet Secretary Sir Richard Wilson acknowledged the problem: “I think there has been a problem, and it is one which we are addressing because clearly there is a major scaling up required in order to get the investment in place and the programme’s moving through a pretty steep curve over a relatively short period of time.”
The main problem was that after several years of both Tory and then, for two years, Labour restraint in public investment a lot of the skills and people needed to ‘get the programmes moving’ simply weren’t there.
I suspect, but I can’t prove, that something similar has happened this time. Since May 2010 two things have happened. First, in George Osborne’s emergency Budget and his later Spending Review, public sector investment was slashed – indeed it was one of the most heavily hit areas of public spending. At the same time civil service departments were forced to rapidly cull their numbers. With investment slashed for the foreseeable future, it would be only logical to cut the people who could implement investment projects with similar fervour.
Then, at last years Budget and after two years of investment and staff cutting, Mr Osborne suddenly decided to switch £5bn into public infrastructure projects. And they aren’t happening. And it’s probably for exactly the same reason as last time – the people really aren’t there any more to implement 576 projects. Simples.