'There has never been a realistic plan' for UK's £11B Emergency Services Network

Commercial and technical risks yet to be addressed by Home Office, spending watchdog says

UK politicians have slammed progress on the £11 billion Emergency Services Network (ESN) – the replacement blue-light mobile voice and data system – saying the government is far too optimistic about its progress and the challenges ahead.

Eight years into the delayed project – which has seen its budget swell by £6 billion – the Home Office risks repeating the mistakes it has already made, said Parliament's public spending watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

The ESN is set to replace Airwave, the mobile comms systems used by the fire, police and ambulance services in the UK. Although reliable, Airwave is old and lacks data bandwidth. The Home Office started the program to deliver ESN in 2015, and hoped to begin using it in 2017, allowing Airwave to be replaced in December 2019. Under current plans, the ESN will not go live until 2026, and it may be as late as 2029.

According to a new PAC report, the Home Office still does not know when ESN will be ready and has little to show the taxpayer for its efforts despite having spent some £2 billion.

Dame Meg Hillier MP, PAC chair, said: "The ESN project is a classic case of optimism bias in Government. 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."

Delays to ESN have meant additional costs for emergency services in keeping Airwave running and preparing to introduce the new network. Transitional costs for the ambulance service amount to £9.5 million, while the fire service said it had spent £6 million. The fire service also spent £2 million on early versions of ESN which now had to be replaced, the PAC report said.

Police forces estimate that Airwave devices have cost them £125 million since 2018, and expect to spend another £25 million by 2026. Forces will be hit by further costs because current hardware will be obsolete in 2028 and may need replacing again before ESN is ready, the report said.

Additional risks were placed before the project when the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) began an investigation into Motorola's role in the project as it held a vital contract for ESN and owns Airwave. In October last year the markets watchdog proposed a price cap on the US company. Earlier this year, the CMA's consultation process argued Motorola would make excess profits of £1.3 billion on Airwave over a decade.

To prevent the CMA from forcing it to sell Airwave, Motorola walked away from its £400 million ($498 million) contract for ESN in November 2021. The Home Office is currently going through procurement to replace Motorola on Lot 2 of the contract and expects to appoint a new supplier in 2024. The Home Office has yet to produce a new business case for the project.

Hillier said: "ESN raises wider issues on the approach to public procurement. The Home Office told our inquiry that it admits the commercial approach taken with ESN is suboptimal, but will be pursuing it regardless. New risks will be created if it now rushes procurement or delivery as it searches for a replacement main contractor. The risks of outsourcing services must be better managed, as the Government is still accountable for value for money when it does so."

The PAC recommended that the Home Office appoints an Independent Assurance Panel to oversee progress on ESN. The new business case should identify how money saved by the CMA charge control can help meet emergency service's transition costs. MPs gave the government department until the end of the year to produce an outline plan for the main building blocks of ESN so elements can be tested in the real world before it produces a new business case in the first quarter of 2024. ®

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