The underwhelming performance of the Green Homes Grant Voucher Scheme will unfortunately not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the history of major government projects. The underlying issues behind these failures must be addressed if we are to meet net zero ambitions, warns Andrew Baldwin, head of public affairs at the Association for Project Management
The recent National Audit Office (NAO) report into the government’s Green Homes Grant Voucher Scheme highlighted crucial failures in the way this project was run and, more importantly, offered a warning of what could happen to net zero-related projects if the underlying issues are not fixed before the upcoming United Nations climate change conference, COP26.
The Green Homes Grant Voucher Scheme offered homeowners the opportunity to apply for up to £5,000 funding (£10,000 for low-income households) to install energy efficiency improvements and low carbon heat measures in their homes. The report highlighted that of a potential £1.5bn pot of money, only £35.9m was spent by the end of the scheme and £314m will be spent in total. That includes £50.5m spent on scheme administration or more than £1,000 per home upgraded.
The scheme aimed to help 600,000 houses and, despite some 113,738 homes applying for support, only 47,500 were finally supported. And instead of supporting 42,000 jobs, it only ended up supporting 5,600 (and even this was a departmental estimate, not a specific number).
This outcome must not be replicated in other net zero projects. So, what went wrong?
The NAO report highlighted multiple issues with the scheme including a far too ambitious timescale (a 12-week turnaround), a lack of long-term commitment and a failure to learn from previous projects.
On top of this, delivery was always going to be strained. The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) told the NAO that when the scheme was announced there were 31 vacancies out of an estimated 43 posts needed in its project team, and the department had yet to consult with installers.
There were also clear governance issues. The department’s own investment committee rejected the business case behind the scheme, and the NAO report points out that no bidder thought it was possible to fully implement the required digital voucher application system by the scheme’s launch.
Major problems with major projects
Sadly, this was not a one off. Previous NAO reports show major problems with major projects (though not with project managers). In July, it gave a progress update on Crossrail urging a re-evaluation of the proposed benefits of the project. In September, its report into the National Law Enforcement Data Programme highlighted a five-year delay to full delivery, with an estimated 68% increase in the total cost from £671m to £1.1bn. Also in September, it raised concerns that crucial parts of the Environmental Land Management scheme were not in place, risking environmental outcomes and value for money.
And this evidence is backed up by the Infrastructure & Projects Authority (IPA) Annual Report on Major Projects 2020-21, which showed a number of projects in the amber/red (44) and red categories (seven). Amber/red means successful delivery of the project is in doubt and red means successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable.
We know most net zero projects will need to be delivered at speed. Another NAO report, on this specific issue identified two categories of project where speed was most likely to work – in an emergency situation (eg the Covid-19 vaccine rollout) or when there is a fixed deadline (eg the London Olympics). With reference to the Green Homes Grant Voucher Scheme, the scheme was not a success despite it taking place in a pandemic and with a set deadline.
Understanding the impact of politics on projects
Association for Project Management (APM) wants to see more research into the impact of politics on projects to understand why some projects fail. In March 2021 the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee warned that the government has “no plan” for achieving net zero, two years after setting target in law, so that impact is already being felt.
APM wants to see a better focus on skills – a recent McKinsey report identified project management as one of the top three current and future employability skills while Nick Smallwood, chief executive of the IPA, warned of a project management skills shortage by mid-decade. Given the sheer number of projects required to deliver net zero, we will need an expanded, trained workforce to deliver on what is needed.
And on the training front, APM is keen to develop the skills of its members, ensuring those working on major projects are working to become Chartered Project Professionals, providing more reassurance over the quality of the project. The IPA is working on this as well, through the Major Projects Leadership Academy.
And ultimately, APM wants to see more accountability for projects that don’t go to plan. The House of Commons Transport Select Committee rightly pointed out that “when overruns occur, politicians blame those who delivered the project, despite these delivery bodies not being responsible for setting budgets and timescales”. It does the profession no good when professionals are blamed for projects that overrun.
And indeed, as far as our net zero commitments are concerned, we simply cannot afford to get these projects wrong.
It is vital that we ensure the reasons for the problems that have plagued previous projects of this nature are eliminated; that we deliver net zero and a sustainable future. Perhaps that too can become part of the long-term legacy of COP26.
Head for public affairs
Association for Project Management
Tel: +44 (0)845 458 1944
LinkedIn: Association for Project Management