AROUND the world, wherever there has been some transparency on decision-making relative to major public procurement projects there is evidence of a litany of financial disasters, even when a global pandemic was not a factor in causing delays. In fact probably the last major UK project to be delivered on time and under budget was the Scottish Government’s Queensferry Crossing.

The UK Government’s current cut-down HS2 “cost overrun” alone is £65 billion, an amount which would cover the cost of building more than 300 dual-fuel ferries. It is estimated this will double. Added to the long list of UK Government procurement failures, roughly 10% of the costs of which are borne by Scottish taxpayers, are two delayed over-budget aircraft carriers still without the aircraft they were designed to carry, the “cost overrun” alone of £3 billion costing Scottish taxpayers the equivalent of constructing two dual-fuel ferries.

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Not just Tory spin doctors but some independence supporters have suggested that because these carriers, one of which is now being cannibalised for spare parts before it has even served in action, were assembled in Scotland, this debacle somehow reflects poorly on the Scottish workforce, but it takes little investigative thinking to conclude that this was essentially a UK Government project with major components manufactured elsewhere in the UK and with the overall construction process managed by UK Government officials and appointed tenderers.

Instead of mischievously attempting to portray the highly regrettable situation at Ferguson’s as representing one of the greatest public spending disasters in history in spite of ongoing UK Government infrastructure and defence spending catastrophes, those wishing to seriously pass comment on Ferguson’s should address what has actually gone wrong and what lessons are wisely to be learned for the future (rather than unconstructively resorting to wild speculation or misrepresentation devoid of objective context).

Unlike some recent major UK Government procurement projects, there does not appear to be any suggestion here of blatant cronyism or corruption. The intention of seeking to build two world-leading, state-of-the-art dual-fuel ferries that would help to resurrect shipbuilding on the Clyde and serve Scotland’s island communities for decades to come undoubtedly had much merit. This good intent though probably introduces the first lesson to be learned – that all governments should be wary of embarking on projects that involve major innovative design, especially without advance trials, appropriate contingencies and rigorous financial conditions covering possible mistakes and delays.

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The second lesson would appear to be to avoid projects that seem to hinge on the words of maverick private-sector bosses who contrive good sales stories but often cleverly avoid accountability and are quick to disappear when things go wrong. The UK Government’s procurement processes saw billions of pounds wasted on PPE manufactured by companies that had no history of PPE production and which subsequently had to be incinerated.

The third lesson for government is that the best of intentions must not enable professional project and financial management to be delegated without constant independent oversight and comprehensive performance measures.

No doubt opposition parties, aided and abetted by the BBC and much of the UK mainstream media, will continue to present a subjective view of events surrounding the building of the two dual-fuel ferries until both are successfully launched. However, while not seeking to absolve the Scottish Government of its pivotal responsibility in this matter, objective analyses should reflect on the shortcomings of public procurement in general and what needs to be done to improve processes in Scotland and – probably even more importantly for Scotland economically, as long as Scotland is not independent – the rest of the UK.

Stan Grodynski
Longniddry, East Lothian