Two reports from parliamentary watchdogs have found that Boris Johnson’s hospital building project and three levelling up funds are experiencing delays and are unlikely to be completed on schedule.
The public accounts committee declared that they have little faith in the former prime minister’s commitment to construct 40 hospitals by 2030, and doubts that the revised goal of 32 will be achieved by the set deadline.
The group of MPs from different political parties stated that there has been minimal progress for patients since the program was introduced. They urged the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to promptly assess how new hospital construction plans would directly benefit patients. The committee also cautioned that there is a potential for future hospitals to be constructed at an inadequate size.
Meg Hillier, the committee’s chair, stated: “The NHS, in its physical form, is visibly deteriorating. This crisis was not inevitable, and can be attributed to the choice to divert funds from maintenance and investment towards immediate expenses.”
According to Matthew Taylor, the CEO of the NHS Confederation, which advocates for hospitals and providers of ambulance, mental health, community care, and GP services in England, the report highlights the pressing need for financial resources to be allocated to the health service. This is especially important in addressing the current £10.2bn backlog for maintenance, which severely hinders productivity.
He stated, “The new hospitals programme, similar to parts of the deteriorating NHS estate, may collapse if capital budgets are consistently used for daily expenses. As mentioned in the report, diverting funds to cover revenue shortfalls has caused this problem, resulting in unsafe buildings and hindering productivity improvement efforts.”
A subsequent investigation conducted by the National Audit Office (NAO) revealed that three funds – the towns fund, the levelling up fund, and the shared prosperity fund – were falling behind in their objective to carry out £10bn worth of “shovel-ready projects”. It was reported that as of March this year, local authorities had only spent £1bn of the allocated funds.
According to the NAO, it is unlikely that the government will meet its deadlines, as half of the construction contracts for projects due in March of next year have not been signed. This percentage increases to 85% for projects due in March of 2025. As of March of this year, only 64 projects have been finished, while over 1,000 are currently in progress and 76 have not yet begun.
The NAO found that a major issue was the overlap of funds, but local governments had to request them using varying methods and deadlines. It stated that the causes for delays were complex, including inflation, shortages of skilled workers, and difficulties in the construction industry. Additionally, the NAO criticized the DLUHC for making decisions that were harmful.
The UK shared prosperity fund, which was launched in April of last year, was brought to attention by the NAO. Councils were required to submit investment plans by August 2022, but the DLUHC did not approve them until December of the same year. This left local authorities with only three months to utilize their allocated funds for 2022-23. The NAO recognized that the department is making efforts to enhance project delivery and has allocated an additional £65m in funding.
The money was a result of Johnson’s efforts to bring balance and equality to the nation. Michael Gove was appointed to lead the newly renamed department, reflecting its main goal. However, the shared prosperity fund was first introduced by Theresa May as a replacement for EU funding that was lost.
The allocation of funds to towns has faced strong backlash from the Labour party for favoring areas with Conservative representatives, particularly in locations where the Tories sought to maintain their positions.
The leader of the National Audit Office, Gareth Davies, stated that the department responsible for “levelling up” has made progress, but must collaborate with local councils to address any delays or unfinished projects and establish achievable goals for completion.
He stated that DLUHC should share the findings from their evaluations with local leaders in order to improve cost-effectiveness and lessen regional disparities by enhancing living environments.
Zoë Billingham, the director of the IPPR North thinktank, said the report highlighted a “litany of missed deadlines, moving goalposts and dysfunction in the way levelling up funds have been allocated to councils as part of the government’s flagship programme”.
The DLUHC spokesperson stated that the statistics were outdated. They also mentioned that an additional £1.5 billion was distributed to local governments in the past eight months since March.
“Our team remains dedicated to collaborating with local officials to aid in the successful completion of their crucial initiatives,” stated the representative. “We have allocated £13 billion towards achieving greater equality and enhancing the quality of life for individuals throughout the United Kingdom through various projects.”
“Significant revitalization initiatives require patience to come to fruition, but several projects have already been finished. One notable example is the renovation of Farnworth leisure centre in Bolton, which was made possible by a £13.3m investment from the future high streets fund. Additionally, thanks to the towns fund, both the Ingenium Centre in Darlington and a digi-tech factory in Norwich have recently begun operations.”
The DHSC has been reached out to for a response.