MPs slam construction of £285m St Helena airport where planes can’t land

14 Dec 16

A government project to build a commercial airport on the UK overseas territory of St Helena at a cost of £285m was a “fiasco” that “unquestionably failed” taxpayers, the Public Accounts Committee has concluded.

The committee said it was “staggering” that the Department for International Development did not foresee technical problems that prevent the facility being used by commercial aircraft. 

The committee called on the government to explain who was responsible for a major oversight, which failed to take account of the ‘wind shear’ phenomenon on the island. This phenomenon creates dangerous conditions on the airport approach, and had first been observed on St Helena by Charles Darwin as early as 1836. 

Construction of the airport has now been completed, and it was due to start operating in May this year. However, test flights revealed the presence of wind shear on the aircraft approach. While the airport has since been able to handle a small number of flights, the wind conditions have prevented the airport from being used as a commercial facility.

According to the report, “the department was evasive on the question of who should be held responsible, and is yet to hold anyone to account, either internally or externally for the failure to identify this fundamental issue. Nor has it identified the extent or cost of remedial action required.”

St Helena lies in the south Atlantic Ocean, around 4,670 miles from London. One of the most remote islands in the world, it is Britain’s second-oldest overseas territory after Bermuda.

It was hoped that building an airport on the island would boost tourism, eventually leading to the island becoming self-sufficient, which was the overarching aim of the project. However, in the report, the committee said it was doubtful this aim could be fulfilled, and was “extremely skeptical” about the department’s projected tourism figures.

Committee chair, Meg Hillier, acknowledged the government had an obligation to support St Helena, but a “£285m white elephant” served neither its people nor the taxpayers footing the bill.

“The failure to do due diligence on this project is truly appalling. I also have serious concerns about the airport’s business case, which was marginal at best.”

A smaller airport could have met the needs of the island, she said, and the argument for scaling it up was based on “unconvincing projections”.

“The result is a disaster; a commercial airport that is not fit for purpose, no credible plan to salvage value for money, and no clarity on exactly who is responsible for the whole sorry mess.”

In the committee’s view, the department lacked the technical expertise and competence to build the airport and relied heavily on the advise of outside contractor Atkins. The PAC recommended the department introduce an independent challenge function to bring an objective view into future commission processes, which the department accepted.

Noting that the department was undergoing its own review into the project, the committee requested to see the results as soon as possible. The department has not ruled out the possibility of legal proceedings against third party consultants, nor disciplinary actions against its officials, should the review find them responsible.

Responding to the report, a spokesman for DFID said international development secretary Priti Patel has taken action to learn the lessons from the project.

“An external expert was brought in to review evidence of DFID’s actions while an independent panel has been tasked with finding a solution to challenges presented by wind shear.

“Following this work the St Helena Government has now released a tender for air services for a three year period to provide the best possible air service for the island. Eighteen flights have successfully landed so far ­– including three vital medevac flights. More flights are due next week. To uphold our duty to the island an extension of the Royal Mail Ship service will provide guaranteed access in the meantime.

“The secretary of state is clear: we will deliver on what we promised for the island and we will identify failures to ensure they are held to account, redressed and not repeated.”

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