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Road to regret: after two and a half years, Castle says ‘sorry’ over £100k purchase that blew up in its face

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Unsafe: the asphalt machine that could never be used. Picture courtesy of St Helena Independent
Unsafe: the asphalt machine that could never be used. Picture courtesy of St Helena Independent

The engineer’s missing arm may have had no connection at all with the machine that was ordered from India to fix St Helena’s roads. All the same, it was not a good sign.

Somewhat belatedly, the island’s government has apologised to the public for buying an asphalt plant that turned up with missing parts and a warning that it might go bang, badly.

Which is what happened to £105,000 of public money.

The official statement says there were “serious safety issues” with the machine.

The unofficial story puts it rather more graphically: the engineer who travelled out from India had reportedly explained how similar machines had a tendency to “chop people’s arms off and then explode”.

We are not told how he lost his own arm – it may have been through an entirely different cause – or even whether the anecdote is accurate.

Either way, though, this was clearly not quite the “user friendly equipments” advertised on the website of Pari-Max Engineers of Ahmedabad.

The company’s founder, it says, “is only fascinated in designing… engineering equipment par excellence”.

On 21 July 2011, a government press release gave the first warning that the process of setting up the machine had been about as smooth as a St Helenian road surface.

Under the not-entirely-accurate headline, St Helena commissions asphalt mixing plant, it said:

“The Indian staff from the Pari-Max team have now left the island following their visit to commission the new asphalt mixing plant at Donkey Plain.

“Unfortunately they discovered that some vital parts have not been delivered, including a gear box, pump and some connecting pipework.”

This had been “brought to the attention” of the suppliers.

“The next step,” it said optimistically, “is to make sure that all of the missing parts are delivered and the company return to make sure the machine is fully commissioned and operating safely.”

It never happened. To its undeniable credit, the government realised it would be bad form to use a machine that might suffer a build-up of gas and cover its operators in hot asphalt; and it would have been irresponsible, despite pressure, to sell the problem to someone less cautious.

The £116,119 cost – minus about £11,000 the government got back from the supplier – was written off.

In fact, the statement of 20 September 2013 was not the first public admission that the affair had gone badly wrong.

The island’s spending watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee, received a report on it at an informal session in early 2012, by which time the write-off decision had already been made.

However, its report said: “SHG was considering sale as a repairable concern or dismantling and selling off as parts.”

Meanwhile, road re-surfacing would continue using traditional methods that were no longer up to the task of coping with the island’s increasingly heavy traffic. New techniques would be tried.

Come September 2012, the asphalt plant was still a live issue in the Legislative Council chamber, where it was raised by the Honourable Derek Thomas.

Would-be buyers believed it could be repaired and put to work, he said; but the government was adamant that it was “not a good risk to take”.

In response, roads manager Dave Malpas said that, from what he could gather, the great beast had been built to Indian standards, not British ones, and they just weren’t anywhere near the same level of safety.

Someone ought to have spotted that, The Castle admitted in its statement of apology.

It said significant loss of public funds had resulted from “inefficient procurement procedures and poor judgement on the part of officers (no longer with SHG) who failed to undertake the necessary checks.”

In July 2013, new purchasing rules were put in place. They included looking at risk rather than value, and more up-front scrutiny. And:

  • A qualified professional will check goods and equipment are fit for purpose, and what’s being delivered is what was actually ordered – before being put on the ship; and
  • No up-front payment, without the Financial Secretary’s say-so.

“Losing money through mistakes is painful,” says the government’s statement of regret, “but in the round, lessons have been learnt.”

It ends, in bold type: “SHG apologises to the public for this failed procurement and significant loss of public funds…”

It was not clear why the statement had been made at all, so long after matters had gone so wrong.

Ian Rummery, one of the new breed of councillors who are now introducing open government to St Helena, provided an answer:

“It was an issue that was brought up time and again during the election campaign,” he said. “We felt it was important that this information was put in the public domain so that a line could be drawn under it.

“I do believe it is a sign of the new openness and once requested the administration prepared the information and arranged for it to be published.  There was not any resistance to this information being made available.

“I was personally very pleased by the press release and the apology and
I am confident that lessons have been learned and that new procedures
are in place to prevent this from happening again.”

One other question remains: what happens now? As the statement put it, the affair ended “with SHG retaining ownership of the plant”.

A picture in the St Helena Independent on 21 June 2013 showed it sitting in the road department’s compound, along with a line painter that “has never been used”, according to one letter-writer, and a hot box and paver that “has not move since its arrival here over two years ago”.

As the writer put it in the following week’s issue, “the asphalt plant has been sitting there for near three years with no protection from the ever-changing weather, turning into a large rusted bucket”.

And meanwhile, said another correspondent, “our roads are of no better shape than they were 10 years ago”.

Read the government statement in full here.

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