The credibility of the Government, elected or permanent, around major projects is not beyond question.
Two of the biggest in the history of the State are under way and are characterised by runaway, unplanned costs. This, no matter how the slippage is dressed up, has negative consequences for other projects.
In the case of the National Children’s Hospital (NCH) the bill surges towards €2bn, a multiple of the first estimate.
Project inflation is such that the HSE has warned that NCH overruns jeopardise investment in new facilities.
They may stymie the reforms envisaged under Sláintecare, adding further to the cost. This seems an inordinate price to pay for a single, long-delayed project no matter how desirable. Those concerns, and others around staffing and scale, have been aired but not answered satisfactorily.
The impression that a make-it-up-as-you-go-along culture around costing major projects is a real presence in public life was exacerbated by evidence given to an Oireachtas committee by Eir chief executive Carolan Lennon who claimed her company could deliver the National Broadband Plan for around €1bn, a fraction of the €5bn price in the public domain around an evolving agreement with the preferred bidder — the only one standing — US investment firm Granahan McCourt.
Concerns around the prospect that a national broadband network largely funded by a €3bn Government contribution might remain in private ownership were not eased when David McCourt, the Granahan McCourt chief executive, declined to appear before the Oireachtas committee considering the plan.
Just as with the NCH, this project seems to have more than its share of unanswered, sometimes troubling, questions.
Mr McCourt was not the only one to decline an invitation to that committee. The Department of Public Expenditure’s secretary general Robert Watt snubbed the communications, climate action and environment committee after he raised concerns around the cost and value for money of the project. Government has sanctioned the plan though the Eir intervention, and ultimately Mr Watt’s, may mean it is reviewed.
Mr Watt is not the only public servant to raise issues around value for money. He has been joined by Transport Infrastructure Ireland’s director of capital programmes Peter Walsh who raised questions around a multi-million project designed to resolve escalating congestion and delays at the Dunkettle junction on the eastern edge of Cork City.
This vital hub is overwhelmed by about 100,000 vehicles a day and is the root cause of severe traffic congestion across swathes of the city. It must be resolved. Current plans are scheduled to take over four years but a back-to-the-drawing-board review of costs could, according to TII, add up to two years to the project.
Though those time scales seem modest when compared to other transport proposals for Cork City that will be of little consolation to the hundreds of thousands of commuters trying to negotiate the junction each week.
Despite that, a blank cheque solution is not possible. Once again service users will pay the price for imprecise costing and — the real issue — a collapse in trust around how public money is used.