Cost estimate for new ‘national flagship’ rises to £250m

Defence secretary says MoD taskforce will ensure project 'comes in on time and on budget'
An artist's impression of how the new national flagship could look Credit: 10 Downing Street

By Jim Dunton

29 Jul 2021

Ministers have said that the projected cost of the new national flagship has increased to £250m, before any proposals for the “floating embassy” to promote British diplomacy and trade around the world have even been submitted.

Launching a call for bids from firms keen to design and build the vessel, defence secretary Ben Wallace said the flagship would be a “prestigious showcase for UK skills and expertise” that would “incorporate leading technologies in power, propulsion and practice”.

Prime minister Boris Johnson last month confirmed the government’s intention to press ahead with commissioning a successor to the Royal Yacht Britannia, with the anticipated price tag trailed as £200m, while an invitation to tender notice issued last week indicated a price of around £150m.

But in a speech at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich yesterday, Wallace – who is also the government’s “shipbuilding tsar” – suggested that the budget for the flagship had risen by at least 25% already.

“There has been a lot of reporting around this ship. Not all of it accurate. So let me set out our basic aims,” he said.

“Subject to working through bids, competition and technology, I aim to commission the ship for between £200m and £250m on a firm price.”

Wallace said the competition to win the contract to design and build the ship would run until the end of October and that he hoped to announce the winners in December.

He said the aim for the project was “to begin construction in a British shipyard as early as next year and have a ship in the water by 2024 or 2025”.

The flagship will eventually be crewed by the Royal Navy and Wallace said he had “established a National Flagship Taskforce, housed in the Ministry of Defence, to oversee the programme and to make sure the vessel comes in on time and on budget”.

Wallace said the flagship would be “the greenest ship of its kind” because its design would be would “environmentally and ecologically advanced” and maximise the use of sustainable fuels and materials.

“Our ambition is for something special, not just a cutting-edge ship, but a truly national flagship,” he said.

Wallace added that the ship would be “a floating embassy to promote the UK’s diplomatic and trading interests in coastal capitals around the world: hosting high level negotiations, trade shows, summits and other diplomatic talks”.

The defence secretary also suggested that the new national flagship would contribute to the government’s levelling-up agenda, which aims to boost so-called “left behind” areas, because it would be “the source for a legacy of regional and national regeneration”.

“Our new national flagship will be the jewel in the crown of our upcoming national shipbuilding strategy,” Wallace said. 

“That may sound whimsical or an exaggeration, but I want to be clear – this is not just a flag ship but a flagship project to showcase to the country and the world just what British shipbuilding is capable of – innovative design, competitive build, quality service.”

Wallace said the government’s intention was for the UK to be the “country of choice for specialist commercial vessels, yachts and naval vessels” and that one of the roles of the flagship would be “encouraging more nations to seek out that made-in-Britain stamp”.

Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the figures quoted by Wallace were a significant hike on a £150m budget for the design-and-construction of the ship referred to in an invitation-to-tender notice published last week.

“Boris Johnson has lost control of his vanity yacht,” Thomas-Symonds said.

“It is absolutely staggering that costs have rocketed by £100m in a week. Labour would scrap the government’s latest pet project and invest taxpayers’ money wisely to tackle crime and the surge in antisocial behaviour under this Conservative government.”

The figure referred to in the invitation-to-tender document would not necessarily be the anticipated full cost to government of commissioning the vessel.

Civil service union Prospect, which represents professionals such as engineers and scientists, said the MoD should apply the same designed-and-built-in-Britain rules proposed for the national flagship to the three new fleet solid support vessels the department is procuring.

Senior deputy general secretary Sue Ferns said the contract for those vessels – which will supply munitions, food, stores and provisions to support carrier and amphibious-based task groups at sea – was in danger of going to overseas bidders.

“The commitment to design and build the new flagship here in the UK is a welcome one, especially as building it abroad would have been a total farce,” she said.

“However this commitment from the government only further highlights the lack of the same guarantees around the fate of the fleet solid support ships, which are far more valuable to UK shipyards.

“We need these ships to be designed and built in Britain. Failure to commit to this undermines the secretary of state’s warm words about championing the UK shipbuilding industry and risks jobs across the country.”

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