The West Coast rail fiasco will probably cost us a lot more than £50m

Try doubling it.

"£50m at the very least" is the latest amount that the West Coast rail fiasco is expected to cost the tax-payer although the cost might be "very much larger".

It would seem the Public Accounts Committee has picked the lowest possible number it can think of (in the grand scheme of government money wasting £50m must seem insignificant to the PAC) thinking that people will say, “oh just £50m, that’s not so bad”, while they mutter in an undertone, hoping no one will hear, “it might be a bit more though”.

For a government that won an election on the importance of cuts, the bonfire of quangos and the sacking of unnecessary civil servants the manifest, barefaced disregard for any money other than your own is, at best, infuriating and at worst just depressing.   

The report from the PAC has said the aborted west coast franchise award was down to a "complete lack of common sense" from "blinkered, rushed" senior officials.

I honestly wish this were true. How simple it would be if this was just a case of lack of common sense, a one off mistake, something even the best of us are guilty of suffering of from time to time.

Sadly, this is a result of a far deeper problem. The truth is many people working for the DfT (as well as the rest of the government) simply do not care if the money is wasted.

As the government further alienates its staff, heavy handedly wielding its cost saving sword, blunders due to a complete lack of care are going to become more common. 

The reality is that we do not know and will probably never know just how much this whole unfortunate mess cost the tax-payer in the end.

I think a good rule to stick to when trying to find the bottom line in the chaos and confusion of any government screw up (there are almost certainly more coming at high speed from Birmingham) is to double any number proffered and hope that’s the worst of it.

Photograph: Getty Images

Billy Bambrough writes for Retail Banker International at VRL financial news.

Photo: Getty Images
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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation