Public Account Committee's report into £70 million capital project published
'This story is not yet over.'
That's the view of the Public Accounts Committee which has today (15 November) released a report into the Liverpool Ferry Terminal project and highlighted six recommendations.
The committee, made up of Tynwald members, has been looking into the issues faced during the development of the scheme.
Lewis Foster has been unpicking the story so far:
A link to the full 74-page report landed in the inboxes of the Island's media - complete with a somewhat eye-watering quote from the committee's chair - shortly after 3pm.
Juan Watterson (Rushen MHK and Speaker of the House of Keys) summed up the findings as such: "The Isle of Man Ferry Terminal in Liverpool was a project with a rushed delivery timescale, which was inadequately planned and proved to be hopelessly ambitious in its initial budgeting."
You don't need ChapGPT to write a headline from that...
So, let's take a quick look at the committee's findings.
Turning £18m into £70.7m
When the idea for a new ferry terminal in Liverpool was first put on the table, in 2015, it began with an estimated cost of £18 million.
Eight years later and that figure - which the committee describes as 'optimistic' - has almost quadrupled.
The question it's been trying to find the answer to is 'how?' and there are some key factors which immediately come into play - Covid, for example, is estimated to have added £4 million to the total cost.
Meanwhile, Brexit (Vote, 2016 - Actual 'Brexit', 2020) had an impact on the cost and availability of materials.
To help people better manage their expectations in the future the committee recommends a review of how government can set a 'sufficient, and realistic, contingency budget'.
It also recommends a twice-yearly written briefing for Tynwald Members, coordinated by the Council of Ministers, on any programmes or projects projected to cost in excess of £10 million and asks that capital projects include a contingency amount within budgetary estimates from the outset.
In too deep
"A scheme priced at £50-£70 million at the outset would have been a far harder political ask for the Department of Infrastructure..." - Public Accounts Committee
In July 2023, whilst acting as infrastructure minister, Chief Minister Alfred Cannan went further to suggest "no one would have undertaken this project knowing final cost".
In its report the committee says: "It is almost impossible to know, even with the benefit of hindsight, whether the right amount of money has been spent."
Perhaps the first passengers through the facility can decide.
The negotiators involved in this scheme haven't had the easiest time, press-wise.
Back in August 2021, with a general election just weeks away, outgoing MHK Chris Robertshaw hit out saying those negotiating on the Manx side were 'outclassed' and the 'equivalent of third division players taking on a Premier League side'.
In certain instances, he claimed, 'they didn't listen to advice they were given'.
The committee is perhaps a touch kinder saying 'despite the best efforts of those negotiating on behalf of the Isle of Man Government some key risks were not clearly identified, and sufficiently mitigated, during the pre-contract phase.'
'It is regrettable that the specialist support which was initially identified as a necessity by the Department for Infrastructure was not engaged', it adds.
If the Island is ever to take on another project of this scale again the PAC recommends specialist advisors be drafted in to 'assist in project risk assessment, risk mitigation and negotiations with third parties'.
Why do we need a new landing stage?
You've probably heard that question asked once or twice over the past few years and it's a fair question.
When you disembark at Pier Head in Liverpool you can walk five to 10 minutes down the road, say hello to The Beatles, and you're into Albert Dock or Liverpool One for your shopping - all while dodging fairly minimal traffic (although that main road can be a tad hairy!).
So, without looking into a crystal ball, it's easy to see why the thought of spending millions on a new site, half-a-mile in the 'wrong' direction, was always going to be something of a bitter pill - unless you're an Everton fan.
But the Steam Packet's agreement for Peel Ports for use of the site was set to 'expire' in December 2016, and it cost the Steam Packet upwards of £500,000 to refurbish it as it was.
So, the committee said, 'options needed to be explored' and there was 'time pressure'.
In January 2017 the Steam Packet Company's then-chief executive Mark Woodward said the company was doing 'what they can' and since the land for the new site had been purchased it was 'up to government now'.
Overall, it's been described as 'an extremely complex negotiation' which faced 'multiple issues' including:
- building of the access road and whether this would be undertaken by Liverpool City Council
- the Tynwald approval process
- timing regarding planning approvals
- the quay walls remaining in the ownership of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company and the implications of this
- considerations re allowable freight when Heysham could not be used
Well, in spring this year passengers on the Manannan - sailing down the Mersey - caught the first glimpse of what the site would eventually look like - the facade, complete with light-up triskelion motifs - had been completed over winter.
But those squinting out from the windows of the fast craft would have another year to wait - with the first berthing expected there in March 2024.
In September Treasury Minister Alex Allinson - with the project already three years late and around £45 million over budget - said 'names will be named' promising to hold those responsible accountable.
The report and the committee's recommendations are set be considered in Tynwald in February 2024 alongside a response from government.
Manx Radio has contacted the DoI for immediate response and is awaiting reply.
As Mr Watterson says: 'This story is not yet over.'
You can find a link to the report HERE.