Environment secretary Thérèse Coffey and Defra permanent secretary Tamara Finkelstein have told MPs their department is finessing a revised funding bid to redevelop the Animal and Plant Health Agency headquarters in Surrey after a devastating report.
Members of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee last month warned that APHA’s Weybridge HQ was “continually vulnerable to a major breakdown” because the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had “comprehensively failed in its historical management” of the site.
Their report said the current cost estimate for upgrading the site and increasing laboratory capacity to boost the UK’s resilience to animal diseases was £2.8bn, however Defra had secured just £1.2bn of Treasury funding for the project.
Coffey and Finkelstein were grilled about progress with the APHA redevelopment by members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee yesterday.
Coffey acknowledged that there was “a variety” of other threats the UK could face in addition to the current outbreaks of avian flu. She confirmed the department is working to put together a bid for improved funding.
“It so happens that I’ve been wanting to get a deep dive on the situation in Weybridge and that is happening on Thursday,” she said.
Perm sec Finkelstein said Defra’s executive board had been discussing the concurrency of infectious diseases at its meeting on Tuesday morning. She said the issue was “very high up” on the department’s agenda and that ways APHA could respond to new threats were being looked at “very actively”.
“On Weybridge, we’re doing a lot of work on what our business case looks like and hope to secure the money,” she said.
The PAC report on Weybridge said the funding Defra had secured so far from the Treasury was its 2020 estimate for the redevelopment project. But funding estimates have more than doubled in the intervening two years.
Committee members said there were “over 1,000 single points of failure” that would cause “major disruption” at the Weybridge site and that a “critical works patch-and-repair programme” was set to run until 2036.
They cautioned that the national centre would already struggle with anything higher than a medium-category outbreak, or any multiple outbreak. Their report added that “significant uncertainty” remained over Defra’s current cost estimate for the project.
Dealing with inflation ‘will require prioritisation’
Elsewhere at Tuesday’s Environment Committee session, Finkelstein told MPs departmental staff were still working through the implications of last month’s Autumn Statement and rising prices for Defra’s medium-term plans.
Asked directly about the need for spending cuts, she told MPs that there were still efficiencies that could be found from work processes among the department’s arm’s length bodies.
“There are lots of things to look at,” she said. “We certainly will want to develop some of our ways of working; of how we can work more effectively across the different parts of our group.
“If you take an area like water, where different parts of the group work in different ways, we’re looking at what is the way in which we work most effectively in that. We’ll definitely want to make those sorts of changes.”
However the perm sec also conceded that “prioritisation” would also have to be part of Defra’s approach to sticking within its three-year 2021 Spending Review settlement at a time of significantly higher inflation than was envisaged last year.
“As part of the business planning round we will need to look at prioritisation, no question,” she said.
“There are also areas where we think we may be duplicating and that different ways of working could genuinely give us the sorts of efficiencies we’re talking about. So it will be a combination.
“That’s the process we’re going through now because the context, particularly in terms of inflation, has changed so much.”