How to spot a boondoggle

By Cllr Robert Barnard

boondoggle n. An unnecessary and expensive piece of work, especially one paid for by the public.

– Cambridge Advanced Dictionary and Thesaurus

An American term believed to date from the 1930s and originally referred to items which were probably unnecessary but made for job creation under Roosevelt’s New Deal programme.

The term is also used for public sector projects which promise much but deliver little. Some of us would argue that the Digital Region affair, a publically funded project to extend superfast broadband across South Yorkshire, falls into that category. Sadly not the first example and, unless we learn the lessons it will not be the last drain on the taxpayer. Let us look at a few earlier examples.

The ill-fated R101 airship which first flew in 1929 but crashed in flames the following year. One of two competing projects in the Imperial Airship Scheme it had been built at a cost of £711,595, equivalent to around £38 million today.

It had originally been intended to be built by 1926 but specification changes and production delays put that back three years. The R101’s design was described by airship engineer and later novelist, Neville Shute, as ‘extravagant and over ambitious.’

There was the Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme, authorised in 1946 by the post-war Labour Government; this was a plan to cultivate peanuts in what is now Tanzania as a source of vegetable oil. From the outset there were a number of challenges, not least that the plants require an annual rainfall of around twenty inches but the chosen area is subject to drought!

Logistical problems, equipment unsuitable for clearing the land and an industrial dispute caused by the Government sending officials to organise the workforce into a trade union only added to the problems. Especially when the latter resulted in them taking industrial action in sympathy with striking dockworkers in Dar-es-Salaam. The ill-fated project was finally cancelled in January 1951 after £49 million had been wasted and around 150,000 acres of land turned into a dust bowl.

Then there is the DeLorean. Many readers will remember the gull-winged sports car with unpainted stainless steel body panels. Originally planned for a factory in Puerto Rico, the DeLorean Motor Co. chose Northern Ireland after the Northern Ireland Development Agency offered a subsidy of £100 million, approximately half a billion pounds today. Construction began in 1978 but engineering problems and budget over-runs delayed production until 1981. DeLorean went bankrupt in 1982 leaving a very expensive prop for a Hollywood fantasy!

Plans for Regional Fire Control Centres came to nothing after £500 million of taxpayers’ money had been wasted. The NHS computer system swallowed over £12 billion, twice the original projections, before it was scrapped with civil servants being blamed for keeping ministers in the dark about the ‘unbelievable scale of the disaster.’

How many more of these projects are out there waiting to collapse? How can we identify a boondoggle and cull it before money is wasted? There are a number of common features.

It involves significant public expenditure, will be behind schedule and over budget. In most cases the key figures will have realised but will be reluctant to admit that the project is a failure and may indeed conceal this from their superiors.

It may be portrayed as some kind of cutting-edge technology requiring more research and development which will continue for as long as funds are available to pay salaries which will probably be higher than the market rate.

Then we will be told that some EU grant money will have to be repaid not withstanding that this is our own money which is being spent on something it would not have been spent on if it had not gone to Brussels in the first place.

Some of these schemes may eventually produce something of value but which is worth far less than the total investment. So the next time someone says they can build a time machine or some other wondrous device just remember that it is more likely to be a Bridge Too Far than Back to the Future.

Cllr Robert Barnard joined the Conservative party in 1983 and has represented the Penistone East ward on Barnsley Council since 2005.