1.On the basis of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from the Department for International Development (the Department) on its funding of an airport in St Helena to improve the island’s accessibility and support development of the tourist industry.
2.St Helena is a small self-governing UK overseas territory with a population of around 4,100. It is an island in the middle of the South Atlantic, which has previously only been accessible by sea. The Department provides financial and technical assistance to St Helena as one of three Overseas Territories, which are eligible for official development assistance. The Department provides several types of financial support to the St Helena Government, through a mixture of annual subsidies and multi-year funding. The total amount of financial support it provides has increased significantly over the last 30 years, rising from around £10 million on 1998–99 to almost £28 million in 2015–16. The Department’s funding includes a subsidy to meet the operating costs of the Royal Mail Ship St Helena, which has provided the only regular cargo and passenger service to the island.
3.The Department is funding a £285.5 million design, build and operate contract for an airport in St Helena to improve the island’s accessibility, supporting development of the tourist industry. The Department anticipates that, if the airport boosts the tourist industry as projected, the additional income generated will help to revive St Helena’s economy. The island will then become self-sufficient, no longer requiring a subsidy from the Department.
4.The airport is now built and the St Helena Government had planned to start operating it in May 2016. However, test flights revealed dangerous wind conditions on the airport approach. While the airport handled eight flights between May and the end of September 2016, including three medical evacuations, the wind shear factor precludes the airport from operating the planned commercial service. Wind shear is a change in wind speed or direction over a short distance. It can be caused by surface obstructions or atmospheric conditions and is particularly hazardous for aircraft close to the ground. The RMS St Helena had been due to come out of service in July 2016 but its operation has been extended to July 2017 to ensure continued access to and from the island.
5.In The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin wrote of his visit to St Helena in 1836: “The only inconvenience I suffered during my walks was from the impetuous winds. One day I noticed a curious circumstance: standing on the edge of a plain, terminated by a great cliff of about a thousand feet in depth, I saw at the distance of a few yards right to windward, some tern, struggling against a very strong breeze, whilst, where I stood, the air was quite calm. Approaching close to the brink, where the current seemed to be deflected upwards from the face of the cliff, I stretched out my arm, and immediately felt the full force of the wind: an invisible barrier, two yards in width, separated perfectly calm air from a strong blast”.
6.Wind shear is evidently not unknown to those who have visited the island and it is reasonable to expect the Department to have considered it at an early stage. We asked the Department how, if Charles Darwin could have experienced and described the problem of wind shear on St Helena in 1836, it commissioned a £285.5m airport, paid for by the British taxpayer, without properly appreciating the danger of this effect. The Department told us that it had commissioned a feasibility study from Atkins for the airport build and acted upon its recommendations. It also had received advice from other sources, such as the Met Office and the relevant regulator, Air Safety Support International (a subsidiary company of the United Kingdom Civil Aviation Authority).
7.Whilst the Department was responsible for the project to build an airport on Montserrat, which opened in 2005, building airports is not a core function of the Department and it relied on external contractors for advice. The feasibility study conducted by Atkins was the main source of aviation advice. Atkins expressed doubts about local weather conditions, including the amount of turbulence that could be expected on approaches. It recommended that before the runway design was finalised, a charter aircraft should test fly the approaches to the intended runway. Pre-construction flight testing consisted of a single flight using a propeller aircraft. The Department has entered into a three-year contract with Comair for commercial charter flights using a different type of aircraft (Boeing 737, a twin-engine jet aircraft) which is currently unable to land safely due to wind shear.
8.The Department explained that it has begun a review to identify who was responsible for the decisions and actions that have led to this situation. When asked for a view on who was responsible, the Accounting Officer told us that “My legal advisers are telling me that it is really important that they have the time to go through the work, do the analysis, establish where exactly the contractual responsibility lies, and that one thing I should not do is rush to judgement here and now in a public hearing ahead of that legal work being done”. The Department did, however, indicate that it might initiate proceedings against third party consultants and that it has not ruled out disciplinary action against its officials, should the review find them to be responsible.
9.On whether it had received independent advice on the quality of Atkins’ work, the Department told us that the quality control and review of Atkins’ work was one of the things its current review would examine. It acknowledged that it could learn lessons from the Ministry of Defence on its use of red team processes, a red team is an independent group brought in to challenge an organisation to improve its effectiveness. We also questioned the Department on why it had not sought advice from other departments given the specialist nature of the project. The Department responded that the Air Safety Support International, which it described as “basically a subsidiary of the Department for Transport”, was heavily engaged with the airport build. The Department explained that it is now holding constructive discussions with the Ministry of Defence on how to resolve the St Helena airport problems.
10.The Department and the St Helena Government are currently considering options for addressing the impact of difficult wind conditions on landing the aircraft safely and the former has not yet forecast the additional cost of each option. The Department is working on finding a way for aircraft to land safely to meet the island’s access needs. Its priority is get what it described as “a decent service up and running” by developing the right mix of planes, schedules and routes to land on either the northern approach to the runway as intended, or its southern approach, which would involve landing with a tailwind (aircraft normally land into the wind where possible). The Department is currently collecting meteorological data to allow it to explore options for landing aircraft safely on the northern approach to the runway. This involves physical modelling (wind tunnelling), computer modelling and laser range detection (LIDAR). Air service providers, such as Comair, that want to use the northern approach will be supplied with these data.
11.The southern approach solution involves landing with a tailwind which places restrictions on the aircraft’s weight and therefore its payload. The Department is considering options such as using smaller aircraft. We queried whether the Department could have built a shorter, less costly runway to support such a service. The Department told us that a shorter airstrip would not be suitable for scheduled commercial flights. Nor could a shorter runway accommodate the size of aircraft required to fly to St Helena (taking into account possible diversions to Ascension Island and fuel contingencies).
12.We asked the Department whether there was an open cheque book or a limit on how much it would spend to make sure the airport works. The Department noted that, whilst Ministers would not want an open-ended commitment, it considered the best way for the Government to fulfil its commitment to the residents of the island to maintain access was through the airport. The Department agreed to write to us before April 2017 with details of revisions to its forecast of costs for the project. It also said it needed to provide updated information to the islanders and others on its progress.
1 C&AG’s Report, , Session 2016–17, HC 19, 9 June 2016
2 , para 1.3 (figures exclude capital costs associated with building the new airport)
3 , para 4
4 , para 5
5 , para 6
9 ; Atkins (January 2005), para 7.82
10 ; , para 3.18
17 , para 12
20 Department for International Development
13 December 2016