A British dependency in the tropical South Atlantic, 4,018 miles from home, 1,200 miles from the nearest landfall, 1,500 miles north-west of Cape Town and accessible only by sea, St Helena may be the most isolated place on earth. The island was chosen as the one place in the British empire from which Napoleon Bonaparte was least likely to escape when he was exiled after the battle of Waterloo.
Nearly 200 years later, the only regular transport link to the island is the Royal Mail ship St Helena, which calls twice a month. The island's climate is temperate all year round, its scenery is stunning and it is home to many endemic species of plants, insects and birds.
However, the population has fallen by a quarter to just 4,000 in the past 20 years and the island's economy is in decline, heavily reliant on funding from the Department for International Development (DFID). St Helena's export industries - largely frozen tuna, coffee and honey - are worth less than £200,000 a year.
Atkins was hired in 2003 by the DFID and St Helena government to evaluate options for improving access. It sought the advice of more than 80 engineers, environmentalists, social scientists and economists to weigh up the pros and cons of two air access options and one sea option. Building a long, level platform within international safety standards on a mountainous island poses engineering challenges. A commercial analysis was also conducted, comparing how similar islands had developed as a result of air access.
Atkins forecast that within 40 years, 58,000 tourists a year could be flying into St Helena compared with just 3,000 under the sea option. It recommended the construction of an airport on Prosperous Bay Plain in the north-east, with a runway long enough to land a Boeing 737-800. Atkins' economic models suggest that as a result, St Helena's reliance on UK funding could end as soon as 2025. 'I have no doubt this will prove to be a momentous decision in the history of St Helena,' says governor Michael Clancy.
Much work is to be done, but when it opens in 2010, the airport promises to change the face of St Helena for ever and put it firmly on the map.
Atkins' broad-based modelling of the options open to St Helena show how the community could end its reliance on UK funding by 2025.
- Consult widely - seek the advice of as broad a range of experts as possible.
- Split tasks into manageable workstreams.
- Report on progress regularly to ensure that risks and issues are flagged early.
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