Britain faces the prospect of compensation claims over a disastrous overseas aid project to build an airport on the remote island of St Helena, according to reports in the UK media. The £285million flop became a symbol of Britain’s aid waste this year after experts warned it might never open because of severe problems with wind conditions on the British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic Ocean.
Prince Andrew was due to open the project in May. But test pilots said it was too dangerous to use, and it remains closed to commercial flights. Residents had been promised that years of isolation would be ended by the new airport and were encouraged to expand the capacity of the island’s tourist industry to take advantage of the new opportunities.
The Government predicted that St Helena would benefit from an extra 30,000 tourists a year. And some islanders claim the fiasco means they have lost tens of thousands in upgrading hotels that now lie empty.
St Helena's UK-appointed governor, Lisa Phillips, has insisted that the Government ‘cannot be held liable’ for the failure of the airport to open. A Government source said any claim for compensation would be ‘premature’.
But ministers are also facing demands for an investigation into the disastrous project. St Helena’s legislative council voted this week for an independent inquiry, a move that is so far being resisted by Whitehall
Henry Lawson, a leading member of the council, said: ‘So much has been done to gather information about the wind conditions that exist at the airport, but sadly much of this was after the runway has been laid.
'One has to question how such a monumental project can be carried out without doing these extensive tests beforehand.’
St Helena, one of the most remote places on earth, is best known as the island where Napoleon was exiled by Britain in 1815 and where he spent his last years before his death in 1821.
It is more than 1,200 miles from land, and the only existing transport link is an ageing Royal Mail ship which takes four days to make the 2,000-mile trip to Cape Town.
The airport project began life under the last Labour government and was pursued enthusiastically by the Coalition. Former Cabinet ministers William Hague and Andrew Mitchell gave the formal go-ahead for the scheme in 2011, despite warnings it might not prove to be value for money.
Although plans for an airport have been circulating in Whitehall for over a decade, DfID was warned of the risk of high winds in a Met Office report commissioned in October 2014 and completed in January 2015. The report, sent to the St Helena government, warned of alarming wind speeds, but the site for the airport had been chosen three years before that report.
Lord Ashcroft, the former deputy chairman of the Conservative party who resigned from the Lords last year, has obtained a copy of the internal Met Office report. He said: “Why was the Met Office report only commissioned when the building work for the new airport was in its final stages, ie far too late to relocate the runway if it highlighted insurmountable problems?
“Why was the Met Office report not immediately made public – or, at the very least, shared at once with ‘relevant parties’ so that they could make contingency plans?”