True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it.
On the 3rd June The Times reported that Doug Thornton, the former Head of Property for HS2, had said he was forced out of his job in December 2015 after telling HS2 that the true cost of buying land for the section between London and the West Midlands would be at least £4.7 billion, about £2 billion more than expected.
Just over a week later The Times reported that “Ruth May, the Chief Nurse, was dropped from a government daily press conference after refusing to defend Dominic Cummings”. This followed Mr Cummings visit to County Durham during the Covid lockdown. As an aside, the phrase, “doing a Cummings” is the new shorthand for “going out of bounds”!
To some extent, the rejection of advice goes with the territory of very senior roles. However, any rejection should be based on an alternative and respected opinion. So, in the case of Covid-19 infection projections in the UK, we have different scientific advice from expert Immunologists, from Imperial College London and from Oxford University. The government has preferred Imperial College.
However, there was no alternative Head of Property at HS2 or an alternative Chief Nurse. I applaud Ruth May and Doug Thornton for taking these very public stances. They both clearly value their personal reputations. Moreover, the consequences are huge for taking a public stance, sleepless nights, tainted reputation (until all the facts emerge) and loss of income are the minimum to be expected.
On HS2, it took until earlier this year for some of the key facts to emerge. The UK’s National Audit Office published a report in March (https://www.nao.org.uk/report/high-speed-two-a-progress-update/) which concluded that “The Department for Transport, HS2 Ltd and government more widely underestimated the task, leading to optimistic estimates being used to set budgets and delivery dates.” The NAO pithily noted that there are “lessons to be learned” from the experience of HS2 for other major infrastructure programmes.
However, some may say “it was ever thus”. In 2003, Lord Peter Fraser of Carmyllie QC was appointed to carry out an independent inquiry (www.holyroodinquiry.org) into the new building for the Scottish Parliament. The first project estimate for Holyrood House was for a simple refurbishment of an existing building and was reported at £10m in the Devolution White Paper of September 1997. The White Paper also contained an estimate for the cost of constructing a new building for the Parliament at approximately £40-50m. This estimate was made prior to the identification of a location or a design.
What history highlights is the ongoing tension between being honest and reporting accurately on politically sensitive projects and issues. For example, when Lord Fraser published his report in September 2004 costs were almost £400m. He commented that “This unique one-off building could never ever have been built for £50m and I am amazed that for so long the myth has been perpetuated”. Lord Fraser also noted that “Costs rose because the Client (first the Secretary of State and, latterly, the Parliament) wanted increases and changes or at least approved of them in one manifestation or another”. Lord Fraser’s language leaves no doubt that there was huge political pressure on those involved in Holyrood not “to step out of line”.
The lessons cited above are essentially about project governance and politics. The authority of both the National Audit Office and of Lord Fraser leaves one in no doubt that “lessons must be learned”. This was not part of my curriculum when I studied engineering! However, recently Charles O’Neil has brought together 18 senior members of the international construction fraternity to use our combined experience in writing “Global Construction Success” *. Meanwhile, the challenge for our Government, as it embarks upon its “build, build, build” programme, has been summarised by the philosopher, Sir Karl Popper in one sentence. “True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it”. The jury is out for the moment.
Richard Bayfield, BSc (Hons) MSC CEng CEnv FICE FCIArb
“Global Construction Success” is highly relevant in the current construction climate. Written by 18 industry professionals this very practical book is essential reading for all stakeholders in construction, including government and commercial clients, investors and lenders, contractor’s senior managers, design engineers, project and supply chain managers, and university students.
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