Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Beam me up, Scotty!

A FAILED post-Bexit attempt to establish the groundwork for a British standalone equivalent to the US global positioning system (GPS) or Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation system has cost taxpayers £64 million without succeeding in its aim.

Official figures released this week reveal the UK’s replacement navigation satellite programme lasted just 18 months and was finally closed down in September after ministers abandoned the attempt to create a go-it-alone British system.

I understand the UK Space Agency (UKSA), which is headquartered in Swindon, took out a six-year lease on premium offices in Victoria, central London, to accommodate staff working on the project.

Many UK space experts, as well as the main opposition party, accused government ministers of embarking on a “hare-brained scheme” which was almost certainly doomed to failure. Most space projects of any size or depth these days are part of an international cooperative effort.

In an attempt to justify the expenditure, the government says it “learned lessons” which would enable it to pursue “newer, more innovative ideas”, whatever that might mean.

The announcement follows a decision earlier this summer by business secretary Alok Sharma, who acted against warnings from senior civil servants when he authorised a £400 million government investment in the bankrupt satellite firm OneWeb.

It is widely believed the prime minister’s controversial special advisor Dominic Cummings was behind the bid, which came out of the blue and took many analysts by surprise.
                           
The multi-satellite constellation proposed by OneWeb, which has a manufacturing base in Florida, is designed to provide global internet services. The tiny satellites have no capability to provide navigation signals.

Since the purchase was confirmed, officials have refused to publish an estimate of how much the investment is likely to cost the public in the long run, although UKSA has admitted that more funding will be needed to keep the business alive.

Data released this week show that the total cost of the scrapped satellite navigation programme was £64.2 million, out of an original budget estimate of £90 million.

Labour’s shadow science minister Chi Onwurah said: “These U-turns and mistakes have cost many tens of millions of taxpayer money that could have been better spent elsewhere.

“The government’s recklessness and incompetence with something as vital for UK jobs and prosperity as the space sector is totally unacceptable, and even more so when ministers avoid scrutiny about the enormous cost attached.”

The British government continues to insist that the work which went into an independent satellite navigation system has not gone to waste because it will inform plans for a scheme using the private sector to build a new network of satellites.

In July 2019, Boris Johnson, speaking from Dowining Street in one of his first speech’s since on becoming prime minister, said: “Let’s get going now on our own position navigation and timing satellite and Earth observation systems – UK assets orbiting in space with all the long-term strategic and commercial benefits for this country.”

His pledge came after his predecessor Theresa May had made a failed attempt to keep Britain in Galileo, the EU’s satellite navigation programme, which had already seen an investment of £1.2 billion of UK taxpayers’ money.

Announcing the launch of the UK Global Navigation Satellite System, seen at the time as a political manoeuvre to put pressure on Europe, May said: “This will ensure the UK’s safety post-Brexit, using the expertise of our world-leading space and security sectors to do so. Today’s investment marks an exciting time for the sector, and for the UK, and I can’t wait to see what we can achieve.”

But, like so many things associated with Brexit, the promises and false expectations bare no resemblance to the real world.

By the time the scheme was officially wound up last month, it had reached no definitive conclusions on how to move ahead and Britain seemed no closer to developing its own home-grown version of GPS.

In more government blatherskite, ministers are adamant that, combined with the investment in OneWeb, there is a realistic prospect of the UK “leading the way on satellite technology” in the future by using a decentralised approach which draws on the private sector as well as the state.

Basic navigation services from Europe’s Galileo, in which UK firms have played a major role to date, are available for all. But use of the encrypted Public Regulated Service (PRS) is designed for government-authorised users – such as the military, fire brigades and the police – and is restricted to those inside the EU.

As part of its separation from Europe, the UK governments of both May and Johnson have refused, on largely ideological grounds, to countenance any kind of agreement that would give Britain full access to Galileo services.

Back in March 2018, in an article published in The New European newspaper, I predicted  that “stormy waters lay ahead for any organisation or business linked to Europe”.

“The knock-on effects of Brexit for one of the UK’s most buoyant and future-looking industries and the thousands of people it employs couldn’t be more profound,” I suggested.

In June this year, when I wrote about the UK government’s OneWeb bid, I declared it had all the hallmarks and parallels to the triumphant exceptionalism of the hugely expensive and, so far, still failed UK government plan during the Covid-19 crisis to go it alone and develop its own “world beating” Track & Trace App and system.

Four months later there is little evidence anywhere to dispel that point of view. We all know the Track & Trace system has cost a staggering £12 billion and yet, incredibly, is still not working efficiently enough to make a significant difference.

The lack of post-Brexit direction and strategy from the UK government is apparent almost everywhere you look today - including the country’s vibrant space industry. A government prone to blather and shooting from the hip is not a recipe for success in a business that relies more than most on international partnerships and long-term strategic vision.