Following his defeat in 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte was imprisoned on the Island of St. Helena. His island home, Longwood House, was reputedly so damp and windswept that the British government were accused of trying to hasten his death.
Once again, St Helena’s windy climate has led to complaints about the British government. In April 2016, the St Helena Government announced that the opening of a £285 UK funded airport has been delayed, claiming that “further safety and operational work was required to address the impact of difficult wind conditions on landing the plane safely.”
Many have criticized the government, saying that they have effectively “wasted money” by building an airport which was not fit for purpose on a remote overseas territory.
But according to an investigation by the National Audit Office (NAO) actually it is estimated that the new airport will actually save money overall, even despite the growing cost of the project after significant delays.
£246m would be saved by replacing the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) St Helena and the airport itself presents a net value of £19.1m according to the 2011 business proposal which led to its construction. However, the investigation also shows that the Department for International Development (DFID) will not stop paying an annual subsidy to the St Helena Government until 2043.
St Helena is home to just 4,100 people yet DFID has paid a total of £27.8m in subsidies since 2015, excluding the funding for the airport. It is estimated that it will cost the department £285.5m for the design, building and operation contract for the airport between 2011 and 2026.
Amyas Morse, Head of the NAO said: “The year in which the Department stops paying an annual subsidy to the St Helena Government, as well as the total subsidy paid, will depend on whether the estimates of, for example, tourist numbers and how much they spend, are exceeded or missed.” Nearly 30,000 people are projected to visit St Helena annually by 2042 according to the NAO.
News of the delay to the airport will concern St Helena’s small but vital tourism industry as earlier in June, the RMS St Helena sailed up the River Thames as part of its farewell voyage. For 26 years, the last working Royal Mail Ship has been the only means of transport to the remote overseas territory of St Helena.
The 105-metre long vessel is being sold by St Helena Line Ltd, who operate the ship on behalf of the St Helena Government, after the announcement that the airport would be completed in May 2016, effectively rendering the ship useless. The current owners are hoping to find a buyer for HMS St Helena so that she can avoid suffering the same fate as Napoleon, rusting in the constant winds of St Helena.