This week Tony Meggs, head of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (formerly the Major projects Authority, which was also CEO of) and Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary John Manzoni gave evidence to the Public Accounts Committee.
Richard Bacon MP cut straight to the chase with his first question, asking “My question is: can this Government create an environment in which it is safe for people to be open and honest about problems with projects, and publish it.”
This highlighted the major complaint regarding the old MPA, and one which it is clear the new IPA will carry on with, that reports on projects which could surely only inform the debate around them won’t get published. In fact, it was only because of the persistence of former PAC Chair Margaret Hodge in a 2012 session that anyone first knew that HS2 was rated ‘amber-red’.
Meggs actually said “Yes”, but this was before Bacon had quite finished his question and added “And publish it?” to the end. This somewhat changed the tone of the answer from Meggs, who basically said the only way we can be honest is not tell anyone anything, which sort of diminishes anyones ability to know if they are being honest:
“I think we have created an environment in which it is safe for projects to reveal how they think they are doing. The review process, the assurance process, that we undertake is designed to create an environment in which people will be frank, open and honest about performance. We do not publish those reports, because we believe that if we did so that would severely impinge on our ability to get full, frank and open conversation.”
Relevant to HS2, when Caroline Flint MP asked if there were any recurring themes with the 35% of projects he replied that two of the main reasons were failing to set up the projects correctly in the first place and having unrealistic timescales.
There was a long conversation about the benefits of projects, whereby it became clear that the data used to calculate benefits is not of good enough quality and no-one actually checks to see if the projected benefits of projects are actually delivered.
The headline came in answer to Stephen Phillips who asked which were the three projects Meggs was most concerned about. His first answer? HS2 of course. The conversation went like this:
Stephen Phillips: A few short questions from me. Maybe we can focus on the questions, which are quite short; I would just like answers to them. Mr Meggs, of the major projects you are overseeing—I think it is £511 billion worth in the portfolio—which are the three that you are most concerned about and why?
Tony Meggs: This is always a very, very difficult question. Obviously I am concerned about very, very large projects such as HS2. I actually think HS2 has got a fantastic leadership team and is very well structured, but the scope and scale of it—
Stephen Phillips: HS2 is one of them. What are the other two that you are most concerned about?
Chair: What keeps you awake at night?
Tony Meggs: I worry about transformation, as the report indicates. An example would be courts reform.
Stephen Phillips: So all transformative projects—?
Tony Meggs: No, not all transformative projects.
Stephen Phillips: You see, I am asking a very specific question and at the moment you are giving me a pretty woolly answer. I want to know which are the three projects you are most concerned about and why.
Tony Meggs: HS2, because of its scope and scale; courts reform, because of its complexity; and I think shared services.
So forget what rating HS2 most recently got (though there’s no need to forget it because we don’t actually know what it is!!), when asked which project he was most concerned about, the first answer out of the mouth of the UK Infrastructure watchdog was “HS2”.
Is anyone surprised?