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Ministers have wasted £64m abandoning their 5bn home-grown satellite navigation system

Ministers have wasted £64m abandoning their 5bn home-grown satellite navigation system

Buying a satellite company to deliver GPS despite it having no GPS, is up there with giving a contract to a ferry company with no ferries, writes Chi Onwurah MP. | PA Images

4 min read

The Government has also invested £400million in a satellite company that has no sat-nav capabilities. We cannot let them get away with this careless and slapdash approach.

Rumours are afoot the government’s Industrial Strategy is soon to be ripped up and rehashed, with a renewed focus on cutting edge technologies.

It remains to be seen whether the reality will match the rhetoric, but I welcome any sense of strategic thinking, at all, from this Government on science and technology. It’s clear the old document has been gathering dust on the shelves of the Business department for some time now. 

One area that exemplifies this lack of strategy and leadership is the government’s policy on space. Despite the Business Secretary Alok Sharma’s warm words on Twitter last week about our thriving space sector, in reality the sector has been brutally buffeted by lurches in government policy and blunders flying just below the radar.  

The UK’s space sector has a proud history. From Ariel 1 and Prospero, to Francis Thomas Bacon developing the fuel cells used on Apollo 11, and the expeditions of Tim Peake, the UK has long been a pioneer of space, at the forefront of advancements in science and engineering capabilities.

The latest figures from 2018 suggest the UK’s space sector supports 117,000 jobs in the UK and is worth £14.8 billion a year.

But two years ago, the Tories announced they would embark on a scheme to create a home-grown satellite navigation system to replace the UK’s access to the European Galileo system – after sinking billions in Galileo’s development but failing to negotiate our continued access to it.

But it was criticised by industry sources as too “pie in the sky” and unrealistic, and the estimated price tag – up to £5bn – was eye-watering. Labour said that it was too costly and hare-brained, that it was the wrong strategy to take. But standing outside 10 Downing Street, Boris Johnson chose to use his first speech as Prime Minister to double down on the plan, saying “Let’s get going now on our own position navigation and timing satellite and earth observation systems”. 

Now, Ministers have quietly u-turned. The cost of this change of heart? At least £60million of taxpayers’ money. We cannot let them get away with this careless and slapdash approach. But it doesn’t end there. 

In July, the government announced they would invest £400million to acquire a stake in the satellite company OneWeb, which had recently filed for bankruptcy. Media reports at the time seemed well briefed by government that the intention was to help mitigate the UK’s loss of access to Galileo. Just one problem – OneWeb has no sat-nav capabilities. Buying a satellite company to deliver GPS despite it having no GPS, is up there with giving a contract to a ferry company with no ferries. 

I fear policy is being formed on the whim of Dominic Cummings without rhyme or reason.

Ministers have refused to answer my question about how much adapting the OneWeb constellation to deliver navigational capability is estimated to cost.

Crucially, Alok Sharma invested in this company against the firm advice of his top official, and without properly scrutinising whether the investment would be value for money. The UK Space Agency highlighted a high likelihood of further investment being required to realise the potential benefits, and it has been reported that UKSA officials have “disparaged” the idea of repurposing the company’s broadband satellites to build a GPS system. 

The government has since rowed back, claiming they never intended to use OneWeb for navigation. Their second U-turn on space in just one summer. 

It is unclear whether this investment will even support jobs in the UK’s space sector, with the satellites continuing to be manufactured in Florida.

What makes it even worse is that ministers are ducking scrutiny. Earlier this month, a consultant who advised the government on the deal and was summoned for evidence by the BEIS select committee, said that he was not authorised by BEIS to appear – a breach of protocol and a clear attempt by government to avoid accountability. 

Perhaps Ministers have a secret strategy and these blunders are part of a broader plan. But I fear policy is being formed on the whim of Dominic Cummings without rhyme or reason. And given he is advising a government that was bested by an Excel spreadsheet, and is overseeing a ‘moonshot’ testing regime that hasn’t even made it off the launchpad, I have real concerns. 

The government urgently needs to explain the decisions they’ve made transparently. As we build back from Covid, every pound of investment should be spent wisely. They need to set out a strategy for space and science backed by evidence, to give confidence to the space, science and technology sectors that are so vital for our country’s prosperity.

 

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and is shadow minister for science, research and tech.

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