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A bit of advice


Three stories in the news this week underline what a strange and backward world we live in.

First there was the Jo Moore-Martin Sixsmith affair. While all around us the UK's transport systems are being neglected by inadequate and ineffective government policy, the debate focuses on the petty rivalries of two Westminster clerks.

Both have since departed, not before time, but before the actual 'bad news' about railway performance was published on Monday.

Yet how many more of these overinflated and ineffective 'special' advisers are waiting to fill the gaps?

And how much longer must we put up with such clear managerial incompetence from their boss Stephen Byers. Five years into the Blair reign and integrated transport is all but dead.

There is little evidence of any real talent in his team capable of turning transport around. Employing minor political activists and former BBC journalists to help never really struck me as particularly sensible.

Then there was the strangely hushed acceptance of the news that the UK's new Eurofighter aircraft was likely to be at least another year away from delivery - on top of the 42 months it is already late. It will now cost the £9bn more than the £7bn budgeted and the whole Euro-project comes in at around £38bn.

Yet remember the furore when it was revealed that the Jubilee Line Extension was £1.5bn over budget and two years late? Remember the passionate debate over the cost of the Dome? And the outrage when it was revealed how much the Channel Tunnel cost?

It is right that we scrutinise public expenditure. And in construction we have been searching our souls to ensure that procurement is changed to allow quality, cost and programme certainty. We are not there yet but projects like the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and the Heathrow T5 should show progress.

Certainly when it comes to infrastructure, the Ministry of Defence is leading the way in procurement reform. But judging from the Eurofighter example, I have my doubts that the experts advising government on this project are quite so keyed into this thinking.

Complex procurement is a very difficult process, one explained helpfully last week.

Finally, we have the long awaited and much trailed power supply review by experts from the Cabinet Office's Policy and Innovation Unit.

Six months were spent tackling this vital subject to assess not only what the UK's electricity needs will be over the next half century but also, crucially, how we will deliver this power cleanly and sustainably.

The net result? Well, we seem to be very little further forward. Difficult decisions and recommendations have been avoided in favour of telling us what we already know - that we need an alternative to fossil fuel power generation.

Unsurprisingly we are also told that the options include either investing in more nuclear power and dealing with the waste or using other renewable sources which will need more research and many more sites to meet demand.

So who are these advisers steering government policy and spending priorities? Clearly they need some help. Perhaps getting a few more sensible and straightforward engineers into the smoke filled rooms of Westminster would provide this.

Applications please - I'll happily pass them all on to Mr Blair.

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