The public spending watchdog has urged the Home Office to test its plans for the rollout of its Emergency Services Network, saying the communications project could face further delays and rising costs.
A report from the National Audit Office, published today, also called on the department to come up with a contingency plan in case it is unable to develop elements of the technology needed to make the network function in time.
The multibillion-pound project to replace Airwave, the existing communications network for police, firefighters and other emergency services, has been subject to lengthy delays and has been heavily criticised for being overambitious.
The Home Office now forecasts that the project will cost £3.1bn more than its original budget – bringing the total cost to £9.3bn – and that Airwave will remain in use for three years longer than planned. The extension to December 2022, announced as a “phased rollout” last year, accounts for £1.4bn of the overspend.
But the NAO has said the programme could be delivered even later and cost even more than those estimates. It said the department was yet to test its revised rollout plan, and urged it to do so to ensure it can keep to the new schedule.
“The NAO believes that these costs are highly uncertain, and that ESN is unlikely to be ready by 2022,” the report said.
The watchdog said the Home Office’s “reset” of the project, which included the plan to roll it out in stages as well as renegotiating some contracts and strengthening its management teams, had addressed some of its problems. But it added: “Serious risks remain which the Home Office is yet to resolve.”
Completion of the project is dependent on emergency services being content that the ESN is a “suitable replacement” for Airwave, the report said. However, some services have said they are concerned that the network will not offer the same coverage and resilience as Airwave.
The NAO also found a number of commercial risks to the project, including delays in the negotiation process with Motorola and EE, the telecoms networks that provide the two networks. It noted that Motorola – which owns Airwave and is also a main supplier for the ESN – stands to benefit financially if the project is delayed still further.
Meanwhile, some of the technology needed to make ESN work properly is not yet ready, including a means for aircraft to communicate with people on the ground and for services to make rapid calls at the press of a button, which is unlikely to be ready until 2020 at the earliest.
And the Home Office has yet to develop a detailed plan to integrate all of these components to ensure they work together effectively once they have been developed, the NAO warned.
It said the Home Office must come up with a plan for what to do if these technologies are not ready in time for the full rollout.
The report also highlighted concerns about the long-term cost effectiveness of the ESN. The Home Office has said the network will be cheaper to run than Airwave and will generate £1.5bn in economic benefits by 2037.
However, it has calculated that the savings will not outweigh the project’s costs until 2029 – seven years later than originally intended. The watchdog was also sceptical about the benefits it will generate, as the police have said they don’t agree with the Home Office’s calculation that the ESN will help deliver a boost to police productivity worth £643m.
NAO head Sir Amyas Morse said the ESN’s success was “critical to the day-to-day operations of our emergency services that keep us all safe”.
He added: “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.”