ESN delays have cost police £150m in Airwave devices and £5m a year for transition teams on standby since 2016

NPCC representative calls on government to provide extra support or risk ‘unaffordable’ costs for local forces

Credit: Crown Copyright/Open Government Licence v3.0

The significant delays to the implementation of the new Emergency Services Network have cost the police hundreds of millions of pounds, with senior officers urging government to provide greater support to avoid forces facing “unaffordable transition costs” when the platform is finally ready.

ESN was originally scheduled to go live – and replace the incumbent Airwave communications platform – in 2019. After numerous setbacks, the project is now slated to complete in 2029.

As a result of this decade of delay, police forces will be required to spend a cumulative total of £150m on Airwave devices – investment that would not have been needed if ESN had been delivered on time. Most of this amount – £125m – has already been spent, with an additional £25m needed for new handsets between now and 2026.

These figures were provided to parliament’s Public Accounts Committee by Kier Pritchard, the recently retired chief constable of Wiltshire Police who leads on the ESN project for the National Police Chiefs’ Council.

In correspondence sent to PAC, Pritchard revealed that extra expense has also been caused by forces maintaining “regional ESN teams [that] were stood up in 2016” to support what was then expected to be the imminent commencement of migration to the new platform. As this date has been moved backwards incrementally over the past six years, the teams only “began to be stood down from late 2022 and early 2023” – having collectively cost the police about £5m a year to maintain in the meantime.

These teams will likely need to be reactivated within the next two years, according to Pritchard.

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“We do not know yet what this resource picture may need to look like for future deployment, but there is no reason to suggest that it will be substantially different to that which has gone before,” he wrote. “The future cost will run from the stand-up date of the teams, which is not likely to be before mid-2025, to the Airwave Shutdown Date. This should allow for forces to properly and safely de-commission their Airwave assets and infrastructure, as well as deploy ESN.”

The final extra cost addressed by the NPCC chief is that of forces implementing contracts to address their needs for mobile data connections – which would have been met by ESN, had it been delivered on time.

“With the delays that have been experienced, things have moved on and forces have developed their own solutions to fill this gap,” Pritchard said. “It would be a stretch to suggest that all of the cost, time, effort and other resource devoted to this matter arises only as a result of programme delays and we do not seek to suggest that. However, it is certainly the case that had ESN delivered what it promised, on time, that effort and resource would have been reduced, perhaps substantially.”

When all the additional expense is considered, “it would be fair to say that programme delays have cost the service a substantial amount of money, which cannot be accurately quantified in all cases”, the letter told MPs.

As government works on creating an amended full business case (FBC) for the £12bn-plus programme, Pritchard acknowledged that there have been some “helpful” financial support programmes offered to help local forces with ESN delivery thus far.

“That said, it still leaves substantial costs remaining with forces,” he added. “We believe that the case for further financial assistance is a strong one, especially in light of the Competition and Markets Authority findings and the forecasted savings from the proposed price capping [imposed on Airwave supplier Motorola]. Forces will need to pay for Airwave devices from which they will not benefit from a full life span and will need to buy ESN devices. It is proposed that the dual running costs and transition costs should be catered for in the new FBC, to avoid users facing unaffordable transition costs which could threaten whole scale service migration. We very much hope that the government will use this as an opportunity to ensure there is funding available to assist with the cost of transition which will be significant and in any case greater than if the programme had achieved its original time frame.”

Sam Trendall

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