Research and Technology

10.05.19

New emergency services radio system to be at least £3bn overbudget and three years late as Home Office failings blasted by NAO

An overhaul of the communications system used by the UK’s emergency services will be at least £3bn overbudget and three years late, a report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has revealed.

The Emergency Services Network was created to replace the current system Airwave, but the Home Office has already delayed its delivery by three years until 2020 when it decided to “reset” the programme in 2017.

Originally due in 2019, the Home Office forecasts the ESN will cost £9.3bn, 49% more than initially planned, with £1.4bn just being spent on extending the old Airwave system.

But now the NAO has cast doubt on the ESN’s forecasted costs and delivery dates, and stated that the current £3.1bn overspend is a direct fault of the Home Office’s management.

The damning report said its management of this critical programme has led to “delays, increased costs and poor value for taxpayers,” and said that the Home Office was “in danger of needing another costly reset unless it gets its house in order.”

Emergency services have communicated through Airwave’s dedicated digital radio network since 2000, but in 2011, home secretary Theresa May signed off on plans to buy the cheaper and more efficient ESN.

The NAO said it recognised that the Home Office’s reset had addressed some of the programme’s major issues by introducing a staged rollout, replacing a key piece of technology, strengthening its management team and processes, and re-negotiating contracts.

But the government’s spending watchdog warned that serious risks still remain, and that it believed the forecasted costs to be “highly uncertain” and that it is highly sceptical that ESN will be ready by 2022.

It pointed out that the required technology to allow police, fire and ambulance services to communicate effectively on the system is not yet ready, and that the Home Office is yet to come up with a detailed plan of how it will integrate different elements of the technologies.

It said the Home Office does not have the capability it needs to integrate and test ESN and that whilst it expects the new network to be cheaper, the NAO said the savings will not outweigh the costs until at least 2029.

The Home Office says that ESN will bring £1.5bn in financial and economic benefits by 2037, although police representatives told the NAO they had not agreed these figures.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “The success of the ESN is critical to the day-to-day operations of our emergency services that keep us all safe.

“The Home Office needs a comprehensive plan with a realistic timetable that properly considers risks and uncertainties. It has already been through one costly reset and is in danger of needing another unless it gets its house in order.”

Image credit - BrianAJackson

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