Five questions for DfID regarding the sorry tale of St Helena’s £285 million airport

  • 6 September, 2016
  • Politics

Published on ConservativeHome on 06 September 2016

It has been a long, troubled and worrying year for the 4,500 residents of St Helena but I, for one, have not forgotten about their plight.

Since my initial blog three months ago, I have been trying to shed light on how £285 million of taxpayers’ money came to be spent on a new airport for the remote South Atlantic island, but with a runway that is considered too dangerous to use by airline operators.

For reasons best known to themselves, the St Helena Government and the Department for International Development (DfID) have repeatedly refused to make public a report that was prepared by the Met Office on the new airport.

The Met Office sent the 42-page report, entitled Wind Shear Analysis: St Helena Airport, to the island’s government on January 28 2015 but I have discovered that – quite inexplicably – it took many, many months for it to be forwarded to “relevant parties”, including airlines that were planning to operate flights to and from the island.

A leading UK aviation expert, with 25 years experience of the industry, told me: “It is absolutely wrong that this report was not shared straight away. It is a fundamental tenet of air operations that anything that has a safety-related element is freely and fully shared between airlines and other agencies.”

I have now seen a copy of this “confidential” report but – before I reveal exactly what it says – I should remind readers of the sorry history of the airport, which island residents – known affectionately as “Saints” – had been assured would bring new prosperity to the island where Napoleon Bonaparte was famously exiled some 200 years ago.

In early June, I published, as a blog, my “special investigation” into the problems over the new airport which, for all the controversy surrounding it, remains a wonderful feat of engineering. The original estimate of its cost was £250 million but it was revealed this summer that the cost had risen to £285 million. The bill for the airport is coming from the UK’s £12.2 billion a year foreign aid budget, funded by taxpayers.

The official opening of the airport, originally planned for February this year, has now twice been postponed because of safety concerns caused by wind shear: dangerously unpredictable winds that can push an aircraft off-course as it attempts to land and take off. All pilots are advised to avoid wind shear as there are no safe ways of flying through it.

My investigation was welcomed by islanders who are facing grave financial difficulties – even bankruptcy – because they had been preparing to welcome up to 35,000 tourists a year through the airport. Yet so far this year, well under 2,500 tourists have visited the island, in line with previous years.

My latest inquiries have established that the St Helena Government commissioned a report from the Met Office into climatology and wind shear risk at the new airport in October 2014. The report was duly delivered to its client three months later, apparently costing the modest sum of just “£4,750 plus VAT”.

As part of its page-long conclusions, the report stated: “Due to this south-easterly prevailing wind and the north-south orientation of the airport runway, crosswinds at the surface are very likely to impact operations at the St Helena Airport, particularly if there are wet runway conditions.

“The potential for wind shear at the airport site was assessed. The risk of wind shear due to differences in the wind at the surface and at 2000 feet based on analysis of the airport AWS [Automated Weather Stations] or from presence of deep convective activity is very low…However, the airport AWS is located inland of the airport. Due to the steep slopes close to the runway there is a risk of localised orographic effects including small scale flow acceleration (as airflow is channelled by the terrain) and flow separation leading to fairly slack near surface flow…If the flow does indeed separate then the risk of wind shear could be considerable as the 2000 ft winds are often relatively strong and the flow in the recirculation region will be relatively weak.”

Unfortunately, the warnings highlighted in this report have materialised on St Helena. As I revealed in my first blog, in trial flights to the new airport, at least three pilots encountered alarming problems with wind shear at about 350 feet, just as they were coming into land at the runway, which has a drop of around 1,000 feet to the sea.

I attach no blame to the Met Office nor Claire Bartholomew, the report’s author. Their seemingly extensive report was commissioned three years after the airport site had been chosen and the wind warnings they highlighted undoubtedly fall into the “too little, too late” category. In short, it now looks as if not enough was done prior to 2011 – when the contract to build the new airport was signed – to ensure it was being located in the right place and could be fully operational once it was completed.

There was at least a little good news for the islanders in the wake of my revelations in June. Within days, the St Helena Government announced that the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) St Helena, which had been due to be decommissioned in July this year, would continue operating for the time being. Until now, the ship has provided islanders with a lifeline to the outside world.

However, it takes five days to sail between Cape Town and St Helena, and the ship operates on a fortnightly cycle. Such a timescale is unrealistic for most tourists and, at present, the ship is now only due to run until next July (2017).

An initial feasibility study carried out more than a decade ago by W.H. Atkins, the design and engineering consultants, demonstrated a need for air access to St Helena but I also understand that its report spelled out the need for extensive test flights at any potential airport site. At one point, many years ago, two separate runways – one for landing and one for take-off – were under consideration but this plan fell by the way-side, apparently for cost reasons.

The British Government announced in 2010 that a new airport “is likely to represent the best value-for-money for the British taxpayer”. It said that replacing RMS St Helena with the necessary new ship would cost an estimated £64 million. With the benefit of hindsight, £64 million well spent seems immensely preferable to £285 million foolishly spent. And we should not forget that DfID continues to subsidise St Helena. In 2015/16 that subsidy amounted to £28 million. British taxpayers are expected to hand over a total of £667 million by 2043, when subsidies are planned to end. However, that plan is based on the island have a vibrant airport to generate much-needed income.

However, in the past three months, only a handful of flights have landed on and taken-off from St Helena airport, including for medical emergencies. Crucially, passenger flights are still postponed indefinitely by Comair and Atlantic Star Airlines because of safety fears.

Comair had been due to start operating weekly passenger flights from Johannesburg, but this plan was halted because of the safety concerns at St Helena airport. Atlantic Star Airlines, which hopes to run monthly flights from the UK, has also put its flights on hold.

Lisa Phillips, the governor of St Helena, has issued a public statement reassuring islanders that everything is being done to collect wind data, and to address the wind shear and tail-wind problems affecting the runway, which can be approached from the north or the south. “The airport is certified and open,” she said.

Sadly, however, the £285 million airport remains in danger of becoming a white elephant and an embarrassment for the UK Government. Rather tellingly, perhaps, Nigel Spackman, the aerodrome manager of the new airport, who only took up his post in August last year, left his position in July in order to return to the UK. Rarely can a one-year foreign posting have been so troubled and miserable.

My first blog on the airport issue was published on June 2 this year – coincidentally on Hazel Wilmot’s muted 60th birthday. She is believed to be the biggest inward investor on St Helena, having come alone to the island from Botswana in 2008. Since then, she has spent well over £2 million buying and renovating an 18-room, 18th century hotel, as well as a 17-acre farm to provide meat, eggs and other food for her hotel guests.

Ms Wilmot’s money was invested with the prospect of a new airport and new prosperity for the island – but now her Consulate Hotel is regularly empty and the likelihood of any tourists coming to the island in any real numbers in the near future has evaporated.

This weekend, she told me that it looks inevitable that her hotel will be forced to close:

“Nothing has changed [since the postponement of the airport’s opening] – we are still being told the matter is being investigated, various solutions looked at, etc – but there has been no definite progress, no end date in sight. If anything the only thing that has changed is the level of desperation. Each week we all find ourselves deeper in debt. Folks are selling off what they can to repay loans for boats, cars, houses – then what happens down the line, when they run out of assets?”

One of Ms Wilmot’s biggest frustrations is that, without a guarantee of RMS St Helena running beyond next July, she has no bookings at her hotel for August and September 2017 or thereafter – because no tourists can be sure whether they will be able to get to and from the island. Her fear is that potential visitors will simply book their holidays elsewhere. “The longer the delay in extending the RMS St Helena schedule, the more pain we experience on the island. The St Helena Government appears to thrive on crisis management. There seems to be little long-term planning or joined-up thinking. Every department appears to be operating in seclusion…Round and round the mulberry bush we go.”

Ms Wilmot said that it was ironic that St Helena now has a director of tourism (Christopher Pickard was appointed to the post in August last year)  – but, alas, there are very few tourists for him to welcome and serve. “I have had days and weeks with not a soul in the hotel but the overhead expenses keep ticking away all the same,” she said. “St Helena could be, and should be, contributing a great deal more to being self-sufficient and less dependent on the UK taxpayers.”

Similar tales of woe can be told all over the 47 square miles of the island, a giant lump of volcanic rock a third of the size of the Isle of Wight. In recent months, islanders complain they have been met by what they and their supporters have labelled “a wall of silence” over the future of the airport.

I believe that the St Helena Government and DfID would do the islanders a great service if they provided full answers to these, and similar, fundamental questions:

  • What detailed research was carried out for potential weather and other problems before the airport contract was signed in 2011?
  • What exactly did these tests reveal, what test flights were carried out afterwards and on whose recommendation was the current site of the airport chosen?
  • Why was the Met Office report only commissioned when the building work for the new airport was in its final stages i.e. far too late to relocate the runway if it highlighted insurmountable problems?
  • Why was the Met Office report not immediately made public – or, at the very least, shared at once with “relevant parties” so that they could make contingency plans?
  • Is there any possibility of compensation – or, at the very least, some emergency relief fund – for those who have invested large amounts of money on the basis that thousands of tourists would be arriving by plane on St Helena each year?

Those who know me will be aware that in the past I have been critical of Britain’s foreign aid policy. The British Government, through DFID, has been committed to spending 0.7 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on foreign aid even though we know that tens of millions of pounds from the annual £12.2 billion foreign aid budget get squandered by corrupt and inept regimes.

However, DfID has very different responsibilities towards St Helena. As residents of a British Overseas Territory, all islanders have an automatic right to a British passport. That is why I am convinced that we have a moral obligation to do all we can for a troubled island, where the average annual wage is less than £6,000 a year, despite also facing higher than average costs for services and food. In any case, the islanders are a “special case” because, like the victims of natural disasters, their plight is the result of circumstances far beyond their control.

As Parliament returns this week, I would urge MPs and members of the House of Lords to do all they can to highlight – and alleviate – the acute problems that “Saints” are facing (incidentally, I resigned my seat in the House of Lords in March last year so I can no longer raise my concerns in the “Upper House”).

I last visited St Helena with my parents in 1948 when I was just two years old. Even though I have not returned to St Helena for the best part of seven decades, I feel an affinity towards the island where I, rather carelessly as a toddler, visited Longwood House – where Napoleon Bonaparte lived in exile – and promptly fell into its fish pond.

My most recent plans to return to St Helena in May were scuppered by the safety concerns over flights to the island. However, I will return one day, hopefully, sooner rather than later and, hopefully, when islanders are enjoying happier times.

Related Stories