Government wasted £64 million on post-Brexit GPS scheme before it was abandoned

The Ariane 5 rocket carrying BepiColombo waiting on its launch pad at Kourou in French Guiana.

The Ariane 5 rocket carrying BepiColombo waiting on its launch pad at Kourou in French Guiana. - Credit: PA

Ministers spent £64 million of taxpayers' money to set up a British equivalent to GPS before it was abandoned and shutdown in September.

The UK's Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) ran for 18 months until ministers finally decided to shelve the project, official figures have shown.

GNSS was established to provide Britain's first conventional network of satellites that would compete with the US-based GPS system and the EU's Galileo system, from which it has now been excluded due to Brexit.

The UK Space Agency (UKSA), based in Swindon, rented premium office space in central London and took out a six-year lease.

Labour has accused the government of pursuing a "bare-brained scheme" which was doomed to failure while ministers say they have learnt lessons which will enable them to engage in "newer, even more innovative ideas" to create Britain's own GPS system using privately owned satellites.

The government invested £400 million into OneWeb, a failed satellite company with satellites based in Florida, back in July, teaming up with a global consortium to run the firm.

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Ministers had hoped the company, which went bankrupt while trying to build a number of Low Earth orbit satellites to deliver broadband, would make up for the UK's loss of access to the Galileo programme in the wake of Brexit.

Dominic Cummings was said to have been 'instrumental' in the bid, prompting prime minister Boris Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak to sign off the investment at the 11th hour.

MORE: UK’s £5bn ‘vanity project’ sat-nav system scrapped with government urged to rejoin EU scheme

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Now, officials at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which logged the initial bid, have refused to publish how much the investment is likely to cost the public. UKSA have said more funding will be needed to keep the business running, which critics have pointed out has no navigational capabilities.

Data from the Department for Business has shown the project was given a £90 million budget, with £64.2 million spent before it was eventually scrapped. 

Official office space in Victoria, in central London, costs £172,645 a year and is still being used.

Shadow science minister Chi Onwurah told the i: “These U-turns and mistakes have cost many tens of millions – possibly hundreds of millions – of taxpayer money that could have been much better spent elsewhere, yet they are dodging any attempt at oversight.

“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. And let’s be clear. 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.”

MORE: New £77.6m post-Brexit contract handed to four ferry firms

The government said worked put into the failed venture would not go to waste.

A government spokesperson said: "The GNSS programme has successfully completed its task to develop outline plans for a conventional satellite system, secure high-skilled UK jobs and build advanced expertise in areas such as spacecraft and antenna design, satellite and ground control systems, systems engineering and simulation.

"The new Space Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing Programme will build on this work to develop newer, even more innovative ideas for delivering global ‘sat nav’ and timing services so that we secure the right space-based capability for the UK."

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