Significant costs to UK emergency services as ESN delayed

Tuesday, 25 July, 2023

Significant costs to UK emergency services as ESN delayed

Significant costs are being created for emergency services by the UK Government’s failure to deliver a replacement communication network, according to a new report from the UK Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

The government started the program to deliver a new Emergency Services Network (ESN) in 2015 and expected to turn off the current system, Airwave, in 2019. Airwave will eventually become obsolete and does not provide users with access to modern mobile data. But the government still does not know when ESN will be ready and, despite having spent some £2 billion, ESN has not delivered anything substantial or reduced any risks, the report found.

The PAC’s inquiry — its fourth into the delayed program — looked into how much delays to ESN had cost the emergency services, which have had to pay for additional Airwave devices as a result. ESN transitional costs for the ambulance service amount to £9.5m, while the fire service said it had spent £6m preparing for transition and £2m on early versions of ESN, which now had to be replaced. Police forces estimate that Airwave devices cost £125m since 2018 and expect to spend another £25m by 2026. Forces had spent a further £5m on transition teams. Further costs are inevitable, according to the report, as current systems will be obsolete in 2028 and may need replacing again before ESN is ready.

The report warns that the Home Office appears complacent in its confidence that it could reduce the risks to the project, and its optimism appears disconnected from the reality of its performance to date and the challenges ahead. Following Motorola’s departure from the project, having already been paid some £140m without the taxpayer getting full value, only limited further progress can be made before the Home Office finds a new supplier. Other challenges include integrating the various parts of ESN together, testing the technology, providing the right level of coverage and resilience, and transitioning all emergency services onto the new service.

The PAC is now calling on the government to explore how to help fund the transition to ESN, new Airwave devices and maintaining Airwave for emergency services, as well as producing an outline plan for the main building blocks of ESN by the end of 2023.

“The ESN project is a classic case of optimism bias in government,” said PAC Chair Dame Meg Hillier MP. “There has never been a realistic plan for ESN and no evidence that it will work as well as the current system. Assertions from the Home Office that it will simply ‘crack on’ with the project are disconnected from the reality, and emergency services cannot be left to pick up the tab for continued delays. With £2 billion already spent on ESN and little to show for it, the Home Office must not simply throw good money after bad.

“A clear direction must of course be established for this long-delayed project, but ESN raises wider issues on the approach to public procurement. The Home Office told our inquiry that it admits the commercial approach taken with ESN is suboptimal, but will be pursuing it regardless. New risks will be created if it now rushes procurement or delivery as it searches for a replacement main contractor. The risks of outsourcing services must be better managed, as the government is still accountable for value for money when it does so.”

Image credit: Fleming

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