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Chart of the week: UK government major projects portfolio

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 03 Feb 2022

Our chart this week is based on the Institute for Government’s recently published Whitehall Monitor 2022, illustrating how the government has already started on many of the major projects that form part of the Levelling Up White Paper.
new 4 feb chart

On 31 January 2022, the Institute for Government (IfG) published its latest annual Whitehall Monitor, an authoritative compendium of analysis about the functions and effectiveness of central government that makes for compelling reading and contains some great charts to bring to life what would otherwise be pretty dry content. 

Our chart this week draws on a couple of the IfG’s charts from pages 60 and 61 in the 2022 edition that take a look at the activities of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA). One of the IPA’s key roles is to support central government departments with their most expensive and complex projects. As the chart highlights, there was a sizeable jump in 2021 with 97 new projects added to the 87 existing projects brought forward from previous years, bringing the estimated whole-life cost of the projects being supported by the IPA to £542bn, up from £448bn in 2020.

According to the IfG, the major projects portfolio includes infrastructure developments such as the creation of a Midlands Rail Hub, large-scale programmes to improve public services such as the recruitment of 20,000 police officers by 2023, and military projects such as building a new medium-lift helicopter. This is the largest number of new items added to the portfolio in a single year since the publication of the IPA’s first annual report in 2013, with many of the projects now branded as part of the Levelling Up agenda. For comparison, fewer than 20 projects were added to the portfolio each year between 2018 and 2020. The government is currently managing 184 major projects – about 1.5 times as many as it did the year before and the portfolio is now at its largest size since 2015.

From a conventional perspective it may seem strange that the government started many of the projects in its just published Levelling Up White Paper as much as a year before setting out the plan that they form part of, but in practice the main components, such as new investment in transport infrastructure outside London and the South East, have been known for some time – as has the additional capital expenditure funding that has been provided to departmental budgets. What is new is the insight into the metrics that the government intends to use to assess the effectiveness of its levelling up plans by 2030, with 12 key objectives to be achieved.

However, as discussed in our Autumn Budget and Spring Budget coverage last year, much tighter budget settlements for day-to-day spending mean that departments could struggle to deliver major projects successfully given all the other pressures they are under as well as rapidly rising input costs, with the IfG commenting that: “Ministers should be careful to maintain enough administrative resources in their departments to help officials undertake these projects well, on time and to budget.”

The chart illustrates how following the IPA’s inception in 2013, there were 155 existing projects carried forward into 2014 and 44 new projects that year, a total of 199 with a whole-life cost of £399bn. This was followed by 188 projects in 2015 (150 existing and 38 new) of £489bn, 143 in 2016 (112 + 31) of £436bn, 143 in 2017 (107 + 36) of £455bn, 133 in 2018 (115 + 18) of £423bn, 133 in 2019 (114 + 19) of £442bn, 125 in 2022 (108 + 17) of £448bn and 184 projects in 2021 (87 existing + 97 new) with a whole-life cost of £542bn. 

The IfG says: “Major reform is needed for government to respond to crises like the pandemic while simultaneously delivering long-term policy goals. Whitehall Monitor 2022 reveals how the government has been handling the Covid crisis while at the same time trying to make progress on priorities such as levelling up and hitting net zero. New employment support schemes and the vaccination programme were delivered rapidly, but progress on pre-pandemic priorities was limited.” 

The report also warns that without fundamental reform – such as clarifying ministerial and civil service accountability, better data, improving transparency and ensuring a targeted workforce plan underpins its goal of up to 55,000 civil service job cuts by 2025 – government will continue being knocked off course when faced with shocks to the system. The IfG concludes that whatever happens as a result of the prime minister’s current troubles, with a looming cost-of-living crisis, ongoing COVID-19 challenges, and crunch Brexit deadlines and decisions ahead, 2022 will bring further strain.

The Levelling Up White Paper sets out some big aspirations, but the jury is still out as to whether they can be delivered.

Further reading on the Levelling Up White Paper:

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