Home Office forecasts ESN will cost ‘£3.1bn more than initially planned’

The delayed Emergency Services Network (ESN) is likely to be even later than expected and the Government’s already increased forecast costs are highly uncertain, according to today’s report by the National Audit Office (NAO).

ESN is intended to replace Airwave – the system used by emergency services in Great Britain to communicate. In 2017, the Home Office realised that it could not deliver ESN in the way it intended and decided to ‘reset’ the programme. To date the Home Office’s management of this critical programme has led to delays, increased costs and poor value for taxpayers.

The Home Office now forecasts that ESN will cost £9.3bn, £3.1bn (49%) more than initially planned. £1.4bn of this is being spent on extending Airwave. The new plan is for Airwave to be switched off in December 2022 – three years later than its original date of 2019. The NAO believes that these costs are highly uncertain, and that ESN is unlikely to be ready by 2022.

Parts of the programme have progressed since the NAO last reported in 2016.1 EE has upgraded its network to enable priority emergency calls to be made by emergency services and has extended its coverage to reach 98% of the population of England, Wales and Scotland. The NAO recognises that the Home Office’s reset has addressed some of the programme’s issues – introducing a staged approach to the roll out, replacing a key piece of technology, strengthening its management teams and processes, and re-negotiating contracts. However, serious risks remain, which the Home Office is yet to resolve.

The required technology to allow emergency services to communicate effectively using ESN is not yet ready. For example, aircraft are currently unable to receive the signal needed to communicate with those on the ground and devices are unable to communicate directly with one another without a network signal. Emergency services also need to be able to make near-instant calls at the push of a button. This technology is still in development and will not meet user requirements until at least 2020. The different elements of technology also need to be integrated to work effectively together, but the Home Office is yet to come up with a detailed plan of how this will be achieved.

The successful delivery of ESN is reliant on emergency services being satisfied it is a suitable replacement for Airwave. The Home Office has said emergency services will not have to use ESN until it is ‘as good in all respects’ as Airwave. However, emergency services are concerned that the coverage and resilience of ESN may not match Airwave.

The NAO does not think the Home Office has demonstrated that it understands the challenges emergency services face in introducing ESN, such as incurring extra costs by having to switch. Emergency services do not yet know how much money they will need to invest in infrastructure to improve the coverage or to make control rooms compatible. Some worry that this could place further financial pressure on other services they provide.

There are also a number of commercial risks to ESN. The Home Office is currently renegotiating the programme’s main contracts with Motorola and EE, but these are behind schedule. Motorola needs to be carefully managed as it is both a main supplier to ESN and the owner of Airwave. It could therefore benefit financially from further delays if Airwave is extended. The Home Office is also yet to agree who will be responsible for running the ESN service once it is launched.

The Home Office does not currently have the capability it needs to integrate and test ESN, which comprises multiple pieces of technology that must be made to work together. The Home Office is planning to let a new contract to provide programme advisory and delivery services in 2019.

The Home Office expects ESN to be cheaper than Airwave in the long run, but the savings will not outweigh the costs until at least 2029. This is already seven years later than originally intended. The Home Office believes that ESN will bring £1.5bn in financial and economic benefits by 2037. The largest economic benefit (£643m) is associated with increases in police productivity. Police representatives told the NAO that they had not agreed these figures with the Home Office.

The NAO recommends that the Home Office test its overall programme plan to determine whether the new schedule for launching ESN and shutting down Airwave is achievable. The Home Office should also develop a contingency plan that sets out what it will do if the technology it is relying on does not work.

Amyas Morse, the Head of the NAO, said today, “The success of the Emergency Services Network is critical to the day-to-day operations of our emergency services that keep us all safe. The Home Office needs a comprehensive plan with a realistic timetable that properly considers risks and uncertainties. It has already been through one costly reset and is in danger of needing another unless it gets its house in order.”

Key facts

£9.3bn – total amount the Home Office now forecasts that the Emergency Services Network (ESN) will cost

£1.5bn – the Home Office’s estimate of the current value of financial and economic benefits it now expects ESN to produce in the period from 2015 to 2037

3 years – minimum forecast delay in switching off the current Airwave system, now scheduled for December 2022

49% – increase (£3.1bn) between the Home Office’s forecast total cost of implementing ESN in 2015 and the current forecast total cost

£1.4 billion – the increase in the ESN programme budget attributable to the cost of extending Airwave

470 – organisations expected to use ESN when it is ready; this includes all 107 police, fire and ambulance services in England, Scotland and Wales, and another 363 other organisations in the public, private and third sectors also expected to use the network and contribute to its costs

July 2029 – month when total financial benefits are now expected to outweigh the costs that would have been incurred by continuing with Airwave, seven years later than the prediction in the 2015 business case

5 minutes – time that the Home Office expects ESN to save each police officer on each shift, compared with current arrangements (the largest economic benefit expected)

1. The NAO previously reported on ESN in September 2016: Upgrading emergency service communications: the Emergency Services Network.