Politics v. project truth: We still haven’t learned the lessons

Budget and cost overruns continue to plague government-commissioned projects despite repeated calls for "lessons to be learned". A new book could help with expert views on complex project governance, writes Richard Bayfield.

On 3 June, London’s The Times reported that Doug Thornton, the former Head of Property for HS2, had said he was forced out of his job in December 2015 after telling HS2 that the true cost of buying land for the section between London and the West Midlands would be at least £4.7bn, about £2bn more than expected.

Just over a week later, The Times reported that Ruth May, the Chief Nurse, was dropped from a daily government press briefing after refusing to defend Dominic Cummings.

This followed Mr Cummings’ visit to County Durham during the Covid lockdown. As a result, the phrase "doing a Cummings" is the new shorthand for "going out of bounds".

Standing up for truth

To some extent, the rejection of advice goes with the territory in very senior roles. But any rejection should be based on alternative and respected opinions.  

In the case of Covid-19 infection projections in the UK, we have different scientific advice from expert immunologists from Imperial College London and from Oxford University. The government has preferred Imperial College.

But there was no alternative Head of Property at HS2, nor an alternative Chief Nurse.

I applaud Ruth May and Doug Thornton for taking these very public stances. They both clearly value their personal reputations.

The consequences are huge for taking a public stance: sleepless nights, tainted reputation (until all the facts emerge), and loss of income are the minimum to be expected.

‘Twas ever thus

On HS2, it took until earlier this year for some of the key facts to emerge.

The UK’s National Audit Office published a report in March which concluded that the Department for Transport, HS2 Ltd and "government more widely" underestimated the task at hand, leading to optimistic cost and time estimates.

The NAO said there were "lessons to be learned" for other major infrastructure programmes.

Some would say it was ever thus.

In 2003, Lord Peter Fraser of Carmyllie QC was appointed to carry out an independent inquiry into the new building for the Scottish Parliament.

The first project estimate for Holyrood House was for a simple refurbishment of an existing building and was reported at £10m in the Devolution White Paper of September 1997.

The White Paper also contained an estimate for the cost of constructing a new building for the Parliament at approximately £40-50m. This estimate was made prior to the identification of a site or even a design.

When Lord Fraser published his report in September 2004, the new parliament building’s cost had reached nearly £400m.

Politics v. project truth

History shows the ongoing tension between being honest and reporting accurately on politically sensitive projects and issues.

Lord Fraser commented: "This unique one-off building could never ever have been built for £50m and I am amazed that for so long the myth has been perpetuated."

He also noted that costs rose because the client – first the Secretary of State and then the Parliament itself – "wanted increases and changes or at least approved of them in one manifestation or another".

He leaves no doubt that there was huge political pressure on those involved in Holyrood not to step out of line.

The lessons cited above are essentially about the clash between politics and project governance.

We never studied this

There is no doubt that lessons still need to be learned. They are crucially important for a functioning society.

But none of this was on the curriculum when I studied engineering!

Recently, however, Charles O’Neil brought together 18 senior members of the international construction community to tap our expertise for a new book, Global Construction Success.

Combining hundreds of years of collective experience on complex projects, it comprehensively reviews the impact human dynamics play in their success or failure.

The importance of senior leadership, better risk management, communication, relationships and conflict resolution are all comprehensively explored from our hands-on perspectives.

This very practical book is essential reading for all stakeholders in construction, including government and commercial clients, investors and lenders, contractor’s senior managers, design engineers, project and supply chain managers – and, yes, university students.

Meanwhile, the challenge for our government as it embarks upon its "build, build, build" programme has been summarised in one sentence by the philosopher, Sir Karl Popper.

"True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it."

The jury is out for the moment.

  • An independent consultant since 1991, Richard Bayfield, BSc (Hons) MSC CEng CEnv FICE FCIArb, has over 40 years construction and development experience. Visit:

Image: "Florence", one of two giant tunnel boring machines commissioned by HS2 Ltd for the 10-mile, twin-bore Chiltern tunnel (Jo Fichtner/HS2 Ltd)

  • CIOB members receive a 40% discount on Global Construction Success, from £69.95 to just £41.95 plus postage. Order direct from the publishers and use discount code: VBT63
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