UK lacks skills for ‘unprecedented’ infrastructure drive, MPs warn

The UK lacks the necessary skills and capacity to deliver potentially “unprecedented” plans for major infrastructure over the next five years, a heavyweight committee of MPs has warned.

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, which scrutinises value for money across government, has published a new report today (15 May) into investment in major projects.

It says the UK’s projected spend on infrastructure projects over the next five years is “unprecedented”, according to the government’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), with the UK building more than it has ever built and in a range of sectors including energy.

However the UK government’s departments and its broader economy lack the “necessary skills and capacity to deliver” these levels of infrastructure investment, the PAC warns.

And there is the risk of skills shortages to deliver such an ambitious portfolio of investment because the UK faces global competition from massive projects in other countries, such as Saudi Arabia.

Skills shortages in specific trades, such as welding, are already being seen but design and project management skills are also in short supply, says the report.

It reports feedback from the IPA that there are likely to be pinch points for delivering infrastructure, with the risk that increased demand for scarce skills could increase costs.

“Failure to build market capacity could result in higher prices for scarce skills. Too little of the right skills in government has led to an overreliance on the supply chain, particularly in technical and engineering disciplines,” it adds.

While, according to the IPA, the government’s major project leadership academy aims to get 2,000 accredited professionals through its programme by the end of next March, this is only a small proportion of the 16,000 needed.

The PAC recommends that the Treasury and the IPA should write to it with an analysis of risks to the government’s portfolio of infrastructure projects caused by the lack of skills.

The report also raises concerns that the IPA’s plans to improve the quality of government’s cost estimates of major projects have taken too long to implement.

Having examined many projects, it says early cost estimates have proved to bear “little resemblance” to what they ultimately cost with an optimism bias in nearly every project looked.

In addition, the committee raises concerns that funding packages have often been agreed and projects approved before reaching sufficient maturity.

Dame Meg Hillier MP, chair of the PAC, said: “Over the coming years, government spending on major infrastructure projects is set to rise to unprecedented levels. Such projects present unique and novel challenges which government must navigate if it is to secure value for public money. Without a robust market for essential skills in place, these are challenges the UK will fail to meet, as shortages push costs up in a globally competitive environment.”

The PAC’s report has been published ahead of the release tomorrow of the National Infrastructure Commission’s annual progress review.