A report from the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the Home Office still had no “realistic plan” for the new Emergency Services Network (ESN), with the delay costing the UK’s emergency services millions of pounds every year
The government’s plan to create the new 4G-based ESN was first announced in 2015, initially aiming to launch the system in 2017 and completely replace the existing Airwave network by 2019. At the time, the project was expected to cost around $5 billion.
However, progress on the ESN has been glacial. Eight years have passed, and the government still does not know when the system will be in place, with some reports estimating it will not be operational until 2029.
The government has reportedly spent around £2 billion so far on developing the ESN with no tangible progress, while the initiative’s projected budget has swelled massively to over £11 billion.
Today, the PAC has announced the results of its fourth inquiry into the ESN’s delays, being highly critical of the lack of progress or planning on the part of the Home Office.
“The ESN project is a classic case of optimism bias in Government,” said the committee chair Dame Meg Hillier. “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,” she added.
The report itself detailed the costs the UK’s emergency services are facing in keeping the existing Airwave system running.
The ambulance service said it had spent £9.5 million towards making the transition, while the fire service had spent £6 million, along with an additional £2 million for early versions of the ESN which had since been replaced.
The police force, meanwhile, estimated that purchasing additional Airwave devices had cost them £125 million since 2018 and would cost them a further £25 million by 2026.
It is worth noting here that Airwave’s parent company, Motorola, was originally contracted to help deliver the ESN itself, but withdrew from the project at the end of last year. The US-based mobile device company seemingly feared that it would be forced to sell Airwave by the UK Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA), after a recent CMA consultation estimated that Motorola stood to make excess profits of £1.3 billion from the Airwave system over a decade.
The Home Office is now in the process of finding a new supplier to replace Motorola.
The PAC closed their report by recommending the Home Office appoint an Independent Assurance Panel to oversee progress on ESN. The Home Office has until the end of the year to produce a suitable outline for the ESN project and must create a new business case in Q1 2024.
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