A bright idea

The UK was recently asked to ponder what precisely constitutes a “nationally significant” infrastructure project.

The question was posed by the National Audit Office (NAO), an independent body which scrutinises spending by Parliament. The reason why is because the NAO was investigating the use of the UK Guarantees Scheme (UKGS), which was introduced in 2012 to counter adverse credit conditions by throwing the government’s balance sheet weight behind key infrastructure projects that may otherwise struggle to get up and running.

Certain schemes appear to meet the criterion set by UKGS of national significance pretty comfortably. It’s unlikely, for example, that too many people were surprised that the £24.5 billion (€33.2 billion; $37.8 billion) Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant pre-qualified for assistance given the estimated 3,200 megawatts of power that the station is expected to produce when operational. The plant may be controversial for other reasons but few can question its potential national impact.

Other guarantees cited by the NAO, such as for storage facilities, bridges and university campuses, are also unlikely to raise too many eyebrows.

But one wonders whether the person penning the NAO press release was stifling a chuckle when stating that an £8.8 million project to install energy-saving light bulbs in 150 car parks was “of a scale that cannot reasonably be described a meeting [the] ‘nationally significant’ test”. Yes: just such as project did indeed receive support.

Far be it from us to question the importance of energy-saving schemes. But car park lighting? Nationally significant? Last word to Amyas Morse, head of the NAO: “The Treasury should ensure that it is rigorous and objective in ensuring that guarantees for projects are genuinely needed and that the projects supported bring significant public value.”