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Comment: A really green way of saving £300m

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Nicholas Schoon questions government plans for an airport on remote St Helena, and proposes a radical alternative


The government intends to build a brand new tourist airport in one of the world’s most remote places. It will add to greenhouse gas emissions and threaten rare and endangered species.

The cost-benefit analysis used to justify the project for the mid-Atlantic speck of St Helena failed to account for this environmental damage.

The risks of economic failure are also high. The runway and terminal are meant to deliver huge growth in tourism, rescuing the 47-square-mile island from economic and population declines. If the visitors fail to come, the airport will be a £300m white elephant.

The project will be financed from Britain’s overseas aid budget which, for the sake of the world’s poorest, is being protected from cuts sweeping across the rest of public spending.

But its most immediate and certain beneficiaries are the companies that will build it, and they will come largely from developed nations. Significant sums have already been spent on UK-based consultancy services.

In July, international development secretary Andrew Mitchell announced he was in favour of the airport on St Helena, a British overseas territory 1,200 miles from the nearest mainland in southern Africa.

The project has been topping the island’s agenda for a decade. At present, the 4,000 islanders’ sole link with the outside world is the Royal Mail Ship St Helena, which visits some 20 times a year bringing cargo, mail and passengers – mostly islanders coming and going, but also a few hundred adventurous tourists.

The island depends on £20m a year of UK government support to subsidise its shipping link, local government and public services. It is fairly poor – GDP per capita is about £5,000 – and gradually depopulating as younger people quit for a better life.

To add to the woes of its people and UK paymaster, the 30-year-old RMS St Helena needs either a major refit costing several million pounds or replacement, estimated to cost £64m.

The islanders (known as Saints), their semi-autonomous government and the UK government’s Department for International Development (DfID), see the airport and tourism growth as the answer.

Based on advice from consultancy Atkins, DfID says visitor numbers will rise as high as 59,000 a year in the 25 years after the airport is built. The resulting economic boom will end population decline and dependency on UK taxpayers. A new ship will not be needed.

But will the tourists come? To a remote island that “does not have internationally competitive heritage and nature based sites,” as its own tourism master plan admits?

St Helena boasts no great monuments and buildings, no charismatic wildlife, no coral reefs. Its one small, unattractive beach will have a large jetty built on it to support the airport’s construction.

The island offers a balmy climate, rugged coastal and inland scenery, sport fishing, dolphin watching and a few curiosities left behind by its strange colonial history.

Chief of these is Napoleon’s modest tomb, although the exiled emperor no longer reposes there. His body was returned to France 19 years after he died in British captivity.

The notion that St Helena’s future can depend on huge growth in tourism comes from Atkins’ feasibility study into its international transport options, commissioned by DfID in 2004. This included a tourism market study.1

Niche market

It says the island could only ever appeal to a niche market of well-off, but not luxury-seeking, tourists interested in visiting unusual, remote destinations. Of more than 70 smaller scale, UK-based tourism operators contacted by Atkins, only six expressed any interest in taking clients to St Helena.

The consultancy’s claim that there is this great potential for tourism rests on the rapid growth seen in the past 20-30 years for islands which, it says, are somewhat similar to St Helena – in particular remote, beach-less Easter Island.

The study envisages St Helena’s visitor numbers rising 15% per year averaged over a quarter century. It also sees the islanders becoming long-haul flyers, averaging one return journey a year.

Yet even Easter Island, with its world famous gigantic statues, currently attracts some 50,000 visitors a year – compared to the 59,000 projected for St Helena 25 years after the airport opens.

The Atkins study says there would need to be a sustained marketing campaign and construction of high-quality tourist accommodation to attract visitors. DfID says the St Helena government needs to implement reforms on land development, taxation and immigration policy to attract outside investors.

According to the feasibility study, the greatest uncertainty facing the airport project is that the forecast tourist numbers will not materialise.

DfID and UK taxpayers would gain some protection from this uncertainty if the private sector took some or all of the risk, funding the airport in return for the projected profits from increased tourism.

But during a decade of trying to get the airport project off the ground, DfID’s attempts to secure acceptable, viable private-­sector involvement have come to nothing.

DfID’s support for the project relies on a cost-benefit analysis which, when updated last year, showed the overall benefits brought by the airport are worth almost twice the total costs over a 40-year period.

Even if only half the projected number of tourists come while the airport costs rose 20% over budget, overall benefits still outweigh cots.

Environmental costs

But the analysis did not account for any environmental damage caused by the project. A DfID-funded environmental impact assessment carried out by consultants Aecom shows this damage to be significant.2

If the projected level of flights was achieved, carbon dioxide emissions would rise by some 60,000 tonnes a year.

That excludes any extra emissions caused by expansion in accommodation and transport on the island itself to serve the thousands of tourists.

The figure is tiny in the overall scheme of things. If it was converted into money terms using the government’s shadow carbon price (as it should have been – see ENDS Report 415, pp 32-35) it would make little difference to the outcome of the cost-benefit analysis.

But should a developed nation which has pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 finance climate-unfriendly development plans for one of its overseas territories? Especially when the UK government has made so much of the threat climate change poses to the world’s poorest nations.

Prosperous Bay Plain, St Helena, courtesy of Atkins
Prosperous Bay Plain, St Helena, courtesy of Atkins

There is also the airport’s threat to biodiversity. Prosperous Bay Plain, the semi-desert area where it will be built, provides habitat for a range of endemic species which occur only on St Helena and nowhere else in the world. These include plants, lichens, spiders, insects and a kind of plover called the wirebird.

Just under 400 adults birds were counted this year, and although their numbers have been rising they are classed as critically endangered.

Building the runway, terminal and apron across rolling terrain – it is hard to find anywhere level on St Helena – will require extensive earth moving. That will obliterate some habitat, including wirebird territories. The extensive land-flattening is also expected to increase wind speeds, permanently changing conditions over a wider area.

The plan is to compensate for this damage by conserving and restoring suitable habitat elsewhere on St Helena. But, says Aecom’s environmental statement: “There are uncertainties regarding the likely success of mitigation… a large adverse impact is therefore predicted for the ecosystems of Prosperous Bay Plain.”

Two years ago DfID chose Italian construction giant Impregilo SpA as its preferred tenderer to design, build and operate the airport. Then, just three months later, it “paused” its negotiations with the contractor amid the global financial meltdown.

In 2009, DfID consulted once again, this time on three options: going ahead with the airport; abandoning it and building a replacement for RMS St Helena; or deferring a decision for five years.

Then in July this year, the new coalition government said DfID would fund the airport, provided “strict pre-conditions” were met. These included negotiating an acceptable contract with Impregilo and reforms by St Helena’s government to make the island more attractive to foreign investors.

DfID also says it can significantly reduce the project’s costs – its estimate had soared to some £300m last year –  by shortening the runway. Planes which overshoot would come to a swift halt as they sink into a bed of lightweight, crushable concrete. But this system still awaits approval by the Civil Aviation Authority subsidiary responsible for air safety regulation in UK overseas territories.

International development secretary Andrew Mitchell said that provided these preconditions were met, DfID would fund the airport. “It’s time to stop the dithering and give the people of St Helena the decision they have been waiting for since an airport was first promised… in 2003,” he declared.

That said, a final decision may lie far into next year, or beyond. The biggest challenge is to agree an acceptable contract which protects DfID from cost over-runs on a major construction project in a very remote and awkward location.

Given the huge costs and the real risks that St Helena might not take off as a tourist destination, what alternative is there for the UK and the islanders?

If the airport is built, St Helena is going to swallow some £400m of public funds over the next decade. That is the cost of the airport plus the need for continuing support for its shipping link and public services pending its putative economic renaissance. That is equivalent to £100,000 for every inhabitant.

Return to nature

So why not use some of that money to pay people to leave the island and, instead, turn St Helena back to being entirely unpopulated by the end of this century?

That is what it was until the early 16th century, when the Portuguese, Dutch and British first began to call. The only reason it gained a human population was to aid and embellish wind-­powered maritime empires, particularly Britain’s.

Within a few decades of the East India Company’s colony being founded there in 1659, humans had over-exploited the island. There were problems of deforestation, soil erosion, imported vermin and water shortages.

Today what was once a green island has large tracts of semi-desert. Several endemic plant and animal species are extinct and others are endangered due to man and the goats, rats, cats, mice and rabbits that came with him. And throughout most of its human-occupied history, St Helena has failed in economic terms, consuming more resources than it produces.

So far, this particular island story is not looking like a case of sustainable development. And spending £300m on an airport will not make it one. But carefully and considerately depopulating St Helena might do the trick.

It would be wrong, and unnecessary, to compel the islanders to leave. Instead DfID could devise a cash incentive scheme generous enough to encourage and assist islanders to resettle.

They already have the right to live in Britain. Immigration may be a controversial issue, but there should be no difficulty in absorbing at most 4,000 Saints over a 40-year period.

The government would continue to support decent, if basic, living conditions on St Helena for the remaining islanders. But it would be clear that its long-term goal was depopulation. Whatever vessel replaces RMS St Helena would call less frequently with each passing year. Subsidies would also gradually decline as the population fell. The incentive scheme would be flexible enough to ensure a steady flow of departures.

The aim would be to have only a clean-up crew of fewer than 100 people remaining by 2050. They would be tasked with habitat restoration, vermin control and dealing with other environmental problems, provisioned by the Royal Navy and funded largely by conservation NGOs. Well before 2100 their work would be done and St Helena would, after nearly 600 years, be uninhabited once again.

The UK government has not discussed this idea, either on or off St Helena, since 1715, when the island’s then governor proposed moving the population to Mauritius.

Some might say a depopulation scheme would violate the 1945 United Nations Charter, which obliges nations such as Britain to promote the wellbeing and advancement of people living in their remaining colonies.

But giving the Saints a fair incentive to leave their isolated, tiny land voluntarily arguably fulfils that obligation.

And it would almost certainly be less expensive in the long run than building and running a remote, underused airport.

Sustainable development is a matter of balancing environmental, social and economic factors to provide a better life for current and future generations.

Environmentalists usually complain that governments give economic growth precedence over the other two elements. But in the case of St Helena the social aspect – supporting the islanders – has trumped economic and environmental considerations.

The economics of the new airport are very risky. It will cause significant environmental damage. This one project will disqualify the coalition from being “the greenest government ever”.

Abandoning it and allowing St Helena to go back to nature while protecting the Saints would be an altogether saner, more sustainable development.

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