Strange ideas about budgets at the DfT

Ronnie Cohen comments on the way the UK Department for Transport (DfT) struggles to maintain a consistent approach to spending.

I recently asked the DfT how much money will be diverted from high priority areas and a breakdown of high priority areas where money will be taken from to pay for HS2. Let me start by explaining what HS2 is. High Speed 2 (HS2) is the proposed high-speed rail link from London to northern England via Birmingham. A budget of £55.7 billion has been allocated for this project, which was agreed at the Spending Review in 2015. Royal Assent was granted to the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Act 2017 on 23 February 2017. This Act of Parliament paves the way to begin construction of Phase 1 of HS2 from London to Birmingham.

I received a reply to my FOI request from a member of the High Speed Rail Team, who told me that “HS2 is not being delivered at the cost to other areas of transport”. Compare that to the estimated cost of £680 – 760 million for converting around half a million road signs in 2006. The cost of conversion would still be less than 2% of the cost of HS2 even at the upper end of the DfT’s grossly inflated cost estimates for converting around half a million road signs. After allowing for total inflation of 26% since 2006, the estimated £760 million would be approximately £960 million today. Plenty of evidence has been provided in previous Metric Views article that the DfT estimates are grossly inflated and lack credibility, which will not be repeated here.

But let’s suppose for the sake of argument that it will cost £1 billion to metricate all official road signs and road markings. This is still less than 2% of the total estimated cost of building HS2. While the DfT denies that any funds will be diverted from other areas of transport to build HS2, the DfT has spent many years claiming that metrication of road transport would divert funds from high priority areas. The typical responses of the DfT to calls for the metrication of road signs include, “We do not consider that diverting funding from high priority areas for the metrication of traffic signs is justified.” and “Our position is that we do not consider diverting funding from priority areas to the metrication of road traffic signs is justified.”. How can the DfT claim that a project costing £56 billion does not require any funds to be diverted from other areas of transport but a project that costs, by their inflated estimate, less than £1 billion requires funds to be diverted from other areas of transport? Apparently, the government can find any amount of money when it is committed to a project. Yet for one that makes sense but might prove unpopular it insists this must be paid for by diverting funding from other areas of transport.


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4 Responses to Strange ideas about budgets at the DfT

  1. Daniel Jackson says:

    Of course they could have just "estimated" the HS2 project as costing 57 G£ and set aside 1 G£ for signage out of it. Or do the sign changes the right way like Canada did with adhesive stickers and put the remainder of the unspent money allocated for sign metrication into a fund for future projects so they won't have to divert any funds.

  2. Jake says:

    Is there not an Ombudsman that can be contacted to ask the DfT to explain its calculations? It is a public body, after all, spending taxpayers' money, so the taxpayer should have the right to know how it makes its estimates.

  3. BrianAC says:

    @ Jake says:2017-05-07 at 16:13

    I would go a lot further than this. I can see no reason in this day and age of power computers why all public bodies should not be required to publish a breakdown of all public expenditure. How this is done would evolve over time, but I would suggest a minimum of a spreadsheet including the 'what if' formula that any body could analyse. Follow that up with a gantt chart of major works and we get somewhere near to public accountability.

  4. Mark Williams says:

    @Daniel Jackson:

    DFT are quite happy to be perceived as crooked and duplicitous, as opposed to merely incompetent or imprudent when it comes to misappropriating cycling budgets to spend on motoring schemes. So they can do this when it suits them.

    Presumably, they don't do so in this case because it's quite simply an [incredible] excuse not to metricate the signs. They don't want it to happen, therefore have calculated—or plucked out of thin air—a figure which they believe the finance ministry would never countenance. If both their bluffs were called, they'd probably deliberately waste that amount of money and still have nothing much to show for it and then have to cook up some other excuse. It remains an open question whether they are already doing this with the 400 km/h HS2 railway.

    An obvious way forward would be to simply privatise road signs. This would not be without opposition itself, as even the most ardent small-government ideologues become strangely communist when it comes to motoring subsidies and facilities. But the franchisee would very likely push metrication of new-for-old replacements without much delay to avoid all the extra cost and risk of imperial. The relevant signs (yes, including motor speeding limits) would mostly be metricated within a decade or three—albeit certainly not in a tidy, holiday weekend, sort of way…


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