Minister admits new infrastructure could take another three years and £1bn-plus to reach fruition
The long-awaited new communications network for use by the emergency services could be delayed by a further three years at an additional cost of more than £1bn, a minister has admitted.
The Emergency Services Network was originally due to be fully operational by the end of 2019, allowing the incumbent Motorola Airwave radio network to be switched off.
By September 2018, it was clear that this date could not be met and, as part of a comprehensive reset of the ESN programme, Motorola’s contract to continue to support Airwave was extended to December 2022.
In the coming months the deal is set to require further extension – of up to three years – as crime and policing minister Kit Malthouse admitted that “we are now targeting an Airwave switch off date no later than 2025”.
The expense of maintaining support for the 15-year-old network is “by far the most significant” cost of the programme to replace it, he added. Each additional year of support for the network will cost more than £450m.
This means that, if the contract with Motorola is extended to the end of 2025, an additional £1.5bn will be spent on a project that, at a current projected cost of £9.3bn, is already more than £3bn over its original budget.
“The investment case for the programme remains positive even with this later Airwave switch-off timescale,” Malthouse said.
“Both during and since the programme reset in 2018, it has undergone extensive assurance both internally within the department and externally through Cabinet Office and HM Treasury. The programme has also been scrutinised by the National Audit Office and Parliament,” he added.
“The [Home Office] remains committed to completing delivery of the ESN and switching off Airwave as quickly as possible. We stand by our commitment to the Emergency Services that we will only transition from Airwave to ESN when it is operationally safe to do so. In the meantime, Airwave continues to provide a resilient service.”
In addition to the delays and cost rises, ESN now also faces the likelihood of being technologically outdated before it has even launched. The network will run on 4G infrastructure from BT-owned operator EE – which already offers next-generation 5G services in 112 towns and cities around the UK.
Malthouse’s comments were made in answer to a recent written parliamentary question from Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts.