2007-2008: a winning bid, then the Pause

St Helena Airport Timeline

2007

May: DFID launched a new tendering process for a Design, Build and Operate (DBO) contract for the airport.

30 November: two bids were received – one from South African company Basil Read, and one from the Italian firm, Impregilo, in partnership with the engineering giant Arup (also a partner in Shelco’s original plans).

2008

5 May: plans for the airport, a temporary wharf in Rupert’s Bay for landing materials, and a 14 km haul road between the two sites, were submitted to the Governor in Council for development approval. This was granted.

September: Impregilo was named the winner of the tendering competition – just as the global financial crisis was erupting.

25 September: Nigel Kirby of DFID told the Friends of St Helena that the airport project was still active, but all was not well.

26 September: in The Guardian, Martin Kettle told how final approval for the airport had been delayed by personal intervention from Prime Minister Gordon Brown:

Earlier this year, the Foreign Office finally asked the Department for International Development to sign off on the airport. The file went up to the secretary of state, Douglas Alexander. But instead of giving the go-ahead himself, Alexander was required to pass the decision up to Downing Street. Brown insisted on reading all the papers in the St Helena file and afterwards asked personally to see all the tender documents, in case they did not give value for money. I am told the papers remain in Downing Street and that no final decision has yet been taken.

It would be hard to find a better example of a decision that a prime minister in times of trouble should not waste his time on and one that should be delegated to ministers. What would Napoleon have said? But the St Helena episode has become a Whitehall byword for a lethal combination of micromanagement and indecision.

8 December: the Labour government announced a “pause” in the airport project, days before the contract was due to be signed.

10 December: The Guardian carried an article by Owen Bowcott, headlined, St Helena Smoulders As Airport Project Is Frozen. It began:

In Jamestown’s 18th century castle, overlooking the churning South Atlantic, the governor of St Helena spoke of a “deep, smouldering anger” among the island’s isolated population. Eric Benjamin, a councillor, who had just returned from a carol concert in St Paul’s cathedral, described it as “a lousy Christmas present”.

After seven years’ detailed planning for a £100m airport and the promise of economic self-sufficiency, the remote British dependency was yesterday consumed with resentment about a sudden freeze imposed on its long-cherished project. Plans to fly in thousands of tourists, generate sustainable incomes and link the territory to the outside world, have become the latest victim of the global credit crunch.

Governor Andrew Gurr said Saints were “gutted”, and that commissioning a new ship instead of building an airport would cost the UK taxpayer more in the long term.

Critics observed that construction would already have begun had it not been for Hilary Benn’s decision to halt the original tendering process.

READ MORE:
Next page: 2009 – St Helena fights back, and the Tories fly in
Previous page: 2003-2005: false hope
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