Northern Ireland news

Stormont committee calls for accountability overhaul in response to £700m overspend on major capital projects

A Stormont committee said it was “appalled” by the £110m overspend for Ulster University’s new Belfast Campus, which is running four years behind schedule. Picture by Mal McCann.
Ryan McAleer

A STORMONT committee has called for an overhaul of how major infrastructure projects in the north are managed in response to 11 key schemes running £700 million over budget.

In a new report published today containing 16 recommendations, the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said it is “deeply concerned” about the existing accountability mechanisms and the scale of the overspend.

At times scathing, the report starts with the head of the civil service, calling for the role to become publicly accountable in line with arrangements in Scotland and Wales.

The First and Deputy First Ministers have yet to appoint a new head of the civil service after the departure of David Sterling in August.

According to the PAC, whoever takes on the role must “show leadership” by both monitoring the delivery of major projects and challenging poorly performing Stormont departments.

The report was launched on the back of a Northern Ireland Audit Office’s investigation in December, which found 11 major capital projects have not been completed on time.

The projects include the A5, A6, Casement Park, Belfast Transport Hub, Desertcreat training facility and Ulster University’s new Belfast campus.

READ MORE: Stormont committee criticises department's handling of Casement Park project

The PAC said it was “appalled” by the scale of overruns on Ulster University’s new Belfast Campus, stating: “It considers that this is indicative of poor project management.”

On the £300m overspend for the A5, the committee acknowledged the project had been hampered by High Court challenges.

The committee said the cost of lodging a judicial review case should be increased to reduce “vexatious challenges”.

The PAC also said the way major capital projects are commissioned and delivered is over complicated. It has called for an urgent review of procurement arrangements and said serious consideration should be given to appointing a single oversight body to centrally monitor major schemes.

The committee has also said the planning system should be simplified, while contracts for major schemes should incentivise rather than penalise contractors.

It also acknowledged the importance of multi-year budgets to assist longer-term planning and funding for projects.

The report said uncertainty over funding for the Strule Shared Education Campus in Omagh led to one of the last two remaining bidders withdrawing. The Department of Education now says the campus won’t be open until at least 2025.

Mark Spence of the Construction Employers Federation described the report as a “welcome vindication” for the long-held concerns and frustrations within the building sector over the way the Executive commissions and delivers of major capital projects.

“The committee’s report quite rightly identifies significant, recurrent stumbling blocks relating to accountability, flaws in procurement, tortuous business case approval processes and the speed of our regional planning system as well as its ability to deal with vexatious challenges,” said Mr Spence.

“Additionally, the report also reinforces many of the long held aspirations for reform that we have had – including contracts that incentivise contractors rather than penalise them, multi-year budgets and a new, centralised procurement and delivery agency for major projects.”

The Department of Finance said it will consider the report and its recommendations in order to improve the public procurement process, while the Department for Communities and they Executive Office both said they would consider the recommendations fully.

A spokesperson for the Department of Infrastructure welcomed the report which it said was "very timely" and said it would consider the recommendations carefully.

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