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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Smart motorways are a symptom of the British state’s addiction to failure

The scariest 20 minutes I have experienced while driving came on the M5 travelling home from a holiday in Devon. It was just getting dark when we had a puncture, a proper tyre-shredding blow-out that fortunately happened just after joining the motorway rather than at speed.

I pulled onto the hard shoulder and, with my family safely on the embankment, set about replacing the offside wheel as 40-ton lorries roared past inches away. Spurred on by fear and adrenaline, I managed a change that would have impressed a Formula 1 pit-stop team, which involved unloading our holiday luggage to get to the spare. I still break into a cold sweat every time I drive past the same spot. Looking back, I have no idea what we would have done without the hard shoulder.

It is difficult to understand what thought processes were involved when a few not-so-bright sparks in the Department for Transport dreamt up the idea of “smart” motorways – an innovation, by the way, that I cannot recall ever being debated. These come in several forms, including the all-lane running variety using the hard shoulder as a permanent additional lane and the “dynamic” smart motorways where it is used only during busy periods. The Government is phasing out the latter in order to reduce confusion among drivers, even though they are arguably safer.

The motivation for these schemes was to save money, a laudable ambition given the waste normally seen in Whitehall, of which more later. Using the hard shoulder meant an extra lane did not have to be built at considerable cost and disruption. The problem is that smart motorways are potentially dangerous for drivers forced to stop and unable to get to one of the emergency refuge areas provided every 1.2 miles. I would never have made it to one of those and a dozen or more motorists in recent years have been killed because they couldn’t either.

It is not as though these potential dangers have come out of a clear blue sky. They must have been apparent from the outset and yet the old maxim of Whitehall Knows Best just brushed the concerns aside. The Commons transport committee in a report yesterday pointed out that it issued warnings in 2016 and received assurances that safety matters would be addressed, only to find five years on that this had simply not happened.

Technology that was supposed to improve the swift detection of broken-down and imperilled vehicles has still not been introduced. “The promised safety improvements were delivered neither efficiently nor effectively,” the MPs said. So why weren’t they? Who is responsible for this failure? These parliamentary committees are very good at identifying where things have gone badly wrong but not why.

Another report, this time from the Public Accounts Committee into military equipment procurement, bluntly states that billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is wasted by systemic shortcomings that have been apparent for decades but never rectified. As the committee observes: “Despite numerous reviews over the past 35 years, the MoD continually fails to learn from its mistakes.” The MPs voice their deep concern “about departmental witnesses’ inability or unwillingness to answer basic questions and give a frank assessment of the state of its major programmes”.

The latest fiasco involves the £5 billion order of 589 Ajax armoured vehicles from General Dynamics that should have been delivered years ago, but only 26 have arrived and none has entered service. Trials have been halted twice after concerns that noise and excessive vibration were causing hearing damage to their crew.

Laughably, the National Audit Office is looking into “systemic issues” in MoD management as though this is not the latest in a string of procurement disasters stretching back decades. Recent examples include the Warrior armoured vehicle upgrade, A400M transport aircraft, Marshall air traffic management system, Spearfish torpedo upgrade, Morpheus and the Crowsnest radar. Yet the MoD is opaque about the progress and risks involved, cannot explain what has gone wrong or how to put it right, and refuses to divulge the cost of ending failing contracts. Astonishingly, the MPs add: “The Department admits that it does not routinely monitor value for money of programmes.”

This matters even more since the 2020 spending review allocated another £16.5 billion for additional kit. The MoD says the money is needed so that “our armed forces have the very best ships, aircraft and vehicles”. And so it should, given the amount we spend, but too often the equipment does not work.

The committee says the MoD’s system for delivering major equipment capabilities is broken and is repeatedly wasting taxpayers’ money. New programmes run vastly over budget and are delayed by years. The forecast costs of nine out of 12 programmes increased between early business cases and the main investment decision – three by more than 50 per cent.

To add insult to injury, MoD bosses don’t seem to care. “Senior management appears to have made the calculation that, at the cost of a few uncomfortable hours in front of a select committee, they can get away with leaving one of the largest financial holes in any government departments’ budget, not just for now, but year after year. This committee is determined that this state of affairs cannot, and will not, continue.”

That is fighting talk, but we have seen reports like this before and nothing has changed. Waste on an eye-watering scale is endemic in the public sector – just look at the £37 billion poured down the drain on the NHS Test and Trace programme.

As with smart motorways, the same characteristics are always on show: an ill-conceived or poorly thought-through idea results in commitments being made and contracts issued and is then followed by an institutional unwillingness to admit that the whole concept might be wrong.

Officials are impelled by an iron law of bureaucracy to compound mistakes already made rather than confess to an error. They can do this because it is not their money. In the private sector they would have been fired; and, in any case, this is not only about money. Just ask the families of those who have died on our smart motorways.

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