A troubled £285.5 million airport project financed by public money has “unquestionably failed” the British taxpayer and the residents of the remote island it was meant to serve, a damning report by MPs has said.
Commercial aircraft have been unable to use the new airport on the South Atlantic territory of St Helena because of the dangerous wind conditions, with the MPs on the influential Public Accounts Committee (PAC) saying it was “staggering” that ministers and officials did not foresee the problem.
The PAC demanded answers from the Department for International Development (DfID) about who was responsible and how much it would end up costing taxpayers.
The UK overseas territory, west of Angola, could only be reached by sea and the airport was meant to improve accessibility and boost tourism, with the intention of making the island self-sufficient.
The airport was meant to open in May 2016 but test flights a month before revealed problems with “wind shear”. While the airport has handled a small number of flights, the wind conditions have prevented the operation of a commercial service.
The PAC report said: “The Department for International Development has spent £285.5m of taxpayers’ money on building an airport in St Helena that is not usable by commercial airlines.
“It is staggering that the department did not foresee and address the impact of difficult wind conditions on landing commercial aircraft safely.
“The department was evasive on the question of who should be held responsible, and is yet to hold anyone to account, either internally or externally for the failure to identify this fundamental issue. Nor has it identified the extent or cost of remedial action required. Thus far, the department has failed the residents of St Helena and the British taxpayer.”
The problem of wind shear on St Helena was noted by Charles Darwin on his voyage on the Beagle in 1836 and the MPs challenged DfID about why it had commissioned an airport paid for by the British taxpayer, without properly appreciating the problem.
Officials told the MPs that it had commissioned a feasibility study from engineering consultancy Atkins for the airport build and acted upon its recommendations, as well as taking advice from the Met Office and aviation regulators.
But the report noted that Atkins expressed doubts about local weather conditions, and recommended test flights before the runway design was finalised. The report said a single test flight using a propeller aircraft was carried out, but the contract for the commercial service was to use a twin-engined Boeing 737 jet.