The government has been slammed for “serious failings” in a £285M project to design and build an airport on the island of St Helena, in the South Atlantic Ocean.
The Committee of Public Accounts (PAC) has concluded it is “staggering” that the Department for International Development (DFID) did not foresee the problems that stop the airport, which was funded by public money, from being used by commercial aircraft. The department is also conducting its own review into the issue.
The PAC said that the department was evasive on the question of who should be held responsible, and is yet to hold anyone to account or identify the extent or cost of the remedial action required.
The problem is “wind shear”, which makes it difficult for planes to land; so while some flights have landed, the operation of a commercial airline service to the island to boost tourism has not happened.
The construction contract was awarded to South African infrastructure firm Basil Read in 2011. Atkins had produced a feasibility study six years earlier in 2005, which noted doubts about the amount of turbulence that could be expected on the approaches, due to the elevated location and the surrounding bluffs, and recommended a test with a charter aircraft before any decision was made.
The PAC report states: “It is staggering that the department commissioned and completed the St Helena Airport before ascertaining the effect of prevailing wind conditions on landing commercial aircraft safely at St Helena.
“For a project of this size, we would expect the department to have applied a thorough concept design and risk management process in the early part of any engineering works to test assumptions and highlight potential operational issues such as wind shear. Wind shear is a well-known concept in airport construction and should have been identified as an issue for St Helena.”
PAC chair Meg Hillier said: “The government has an obligation to support St Helena but a £285M white elephant serves neither its people nor the taxpayers footing the bill.
“The failure to undertake robust 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 more modest airport could have addressed the practical needs of the Saints. Scaling up the project may have made sense were it not done on the back of such 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.”
A DFID spokesperson said: “One of the first things the secretary of state did this summer was to take concrete actions to get the airport up and running and to ensure the lessons from this project are learnt. We are already seeing the results.
“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.
“18 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.”
A spokesperson for Atkins added: “Early in the project Atkins provided a range of consultancy services to the DFID in relation to the creation of a new airport on St Helena, including feasibility studies and master planning. This work received independent review by a third party panel. As part of this work a series of risks, consequences and recommendations associated with wind and other weather conditions were highlighted to inform our client’s decisions around the level of air service that could operate from the airport versus achieving best value for money.”