Damning report on city-centre scheme

PUBLISHED: 12:39 26 January 2006 | UPDATED: 20:19 03 May 2010

A DAMNING report has slammed the management of the St Albans city centre road safety and enhancement scheme which has seen costs almost treble to more than £5 million. The highly-critical probe has been released just days before St Peter's Street is due t

A DAMNING report has slammed the management of the St Albans city centre road safety and enhancement scheme which has seen costs almost treble to more than £5 million. The highly-critical probe has been released just days before St Peter's Street is due to close for a further eight weeks to allow the next phase of the scheme to go ahead. It was compiled by an all-party topic group of Herts county councillors brought together to analyse concerns raised about the scheme and the growth in scale and costs. And among the charges they have levelled at Herts Highways and their contractors Mouchel Parkman is inadequate project management of the scheme which was originally budgeted at £1.8 million - this included a £1 million grant from the Department for Transport (DfT) - and is now expected to cost £5.2 million. The report also points to the lack of costing for extra work, important decisions being taken at too low a level, no reporting back to councillors on the increased costs and failure to calculate or point out the cost implications of suggested changes or additions to the scheme. Mouchel Parkman, the design consultant arm of Herts Highways, comes in for particular censure and the county council is recommended to take action to seek compensation from the company. At the time of a hearing in public in St Albans last October, the company's consultation fees had increased from an estimated £300,000 to £1.4 million - only £400,000 less than the original budget for the entire scheme. Mouchel Parkman is accused of allowing its own costs and fees to increase dramatically without prior agreement or warning or within the budgeted level of the project. The company is also damned for failing to produce monthly financial figures and for being unacceptably slow in providing them when requested. Equally damaging is the revelation that extra expenditure over the original estimates was partly funded by "monies for maintenance works not originally planned as part of this project". Despite public concern, it had always been denied that cash which should have been used on much-needed road repairs was being wasted on the city-centre project. Instead it was claimed that the project was funded from a separate budget. The topic group has put forward a number of recommendations including carrying out risk assessment in future when bids for external funding have a short lead-in time, as was the case with the DfT grant, as well as when identifying schemes which require senior management supervision. County councillors will scrutinise the balance of expenditure between consultation and work on all highways schemes and a robust system of project management control should be introduced in Herts Highways. Topic group chairman, Cllr Stephen Giles-Medhurst, said: "The project management systems were inadequate and there was a woeful lack of reporting to elected members. "In addition Mouchel Parkman failed in their contractual obligations to inform those responsible about the increasing costs but there was no evidence of misuse of public funds." He added: "I fully expect some wholesale changes in the way such projects are run in future." St Albans District Council leader, Cllr Robert Donald, said he was not surprised at the findings. "It was fairly obvious to me that there has been a complete lack of project management from day one and no accountability to portfolio holders or cabinet. "The baton kept being handed back to different people. One person would agree a variation and then someone else took over the baton and there was no-one holding it together and making sure that the people back at the ranch knew what was going on." And Cllr Chris White, in whose county council division the work is going ahead, was equally unhappy, describing it as "an absolutely damming report." He was particularly critical of the role of Herts Highways and Mouchel Parkman and questioned Herts County Council's future involvement with them. He said: "Mouchel Parkman used guesstimates of costs and were reluctant to inform people about the situation when asked. They have to provide some compensation to the people of Herts." He added: "Mouchel Parkman were not the only villains of the piece. People who work in project management require a strict superstructure of checks and balances and monitoring to make it work.

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I should probably have taken the hint! Walking out into the garden recently an unprecedented flock of thirty or more crows raucously greeted me from the treetops at the bottom of my garden. Cawing and croaking these big, black birds clung clumsily to the top most branches and twigs, jostling and flapping to stay balanced in a constant flurry of feathers. There is always something ominous about crows – they are after all carrion crows, the vultures of the bird world – always watching for scraps and weakness that might mean their next meal.

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