Freedom of Information Request – DART (rail-airport transit link)

In February 2020 we submitted a request to Luton Borough Council (LBC) to ask if the business case for this Project (as it was being solely funded by them) to see how it fitted into the H.M. Treasury Five-Case Business Model for Public Authority Funded Projects. We also asked if we could be supplied with a timeline for when the residents of Luton could see a positive financial benefit for this £225 million investment.

In June 2020, we finally received a reply, stating that the rigorous business planning process followed the 5-Case Model. The respondent also stated that as the documentation on that process included commercial information to the Project and London Luton Airport Ltd (LLAL) (LBC’s airport company) it could not be shared with the public. The Project was passed by the LLAL Board on 09/10/2017 and after scrutiny by LBC, went before the Executive Committee on 30/10/2017, and was passed. As with all decisions made by LBC about LLAL and their financial matters, it was done in private with minutes/reports not being available to the public.

We took the reasoning that as the Project was under way, it was due for operational delivery for March this year, and there should be no need for any further secrecy on the details we asked for. Showing the detail now could have no affect whatsoever on the commercial aspects of LLAL, and would be historical detail as to the reasoning behind the Project, and the commercial income it would bring to town coffers. We therefore requested an Internal Review from LBC, to access that data. One week later we received the outcome of that request that LBC still held the opinion that the Final Business Case for the Project continued to be commercially sensitive and would not be released under Section (43) of the Freedom of Information Act.

We then decided to refer the request to the Information Commissioners’ Office (ICO), for clarity that the information did fall under Section (43). We made our submission in August 2020. They agreed to correspond with LBC on the subject as they felt we had a case.

It took some time for the ICO to gain a response from LBC, and it wasn’t until late January this year that the Council informed the ICO that they were maintaining their position on withholding the information, but would supply a redacted version of the information we requested.   The document LBC provided was 70% redacted, and was just fluffy soundbites which could be found in any of the press releases they have made on the Project. We informed the ICO that this reply was still not acceptable as none of our original request had been answered.  The ICO agreed that the information supplied did not cover the rationale/ justification in our request, and said they would write to LBC again to ask for this. This request led to LBC asking LLAL to supply the answers we requested, and on the 30th March we received a letter from the Strategic Development Manager of LLAL. It did not contain anything significantly new.  It only contained phrases that could be found in any of the over-hyped press releases that have appeared over the life of the Project.

The decision to go ahead with DART was made in 2014, as part of the successful planning application to increase to 18 million passengers per annum. Condition No 32 of that application referred to increasing the modal shift of passengers from private vehicles to sustainable public transport – in this case rail.  Thirteen options were considered, with a DART-style link the preferred option.

So the DART was not built for future airport expansion, but to facilitate this modal shift.

The application for expansion was submitted by the airport operator London Luton Airport Operations Ltd (LLAOL). If you look at the application, no such link is mentioned.    This begs the obvious questions: Why was the DART not included if a condition of the application was this modal shift? Why did LLAL/LBC decide to pay for the Project and not LLAOL?  Senior management from LLAOL handled the negotiations and selection of contractors, on a publicly funded Project, but invested none of their own immense financial reserves?

We are assured again that the Business Case met the 5-Case standards. It was reviewed by independent auditors PWC, the LLAL Board and the LBC Council Executive.       LBC’s auditors, EY, stated in their audit report in 2018, that the trail of contracts/costs for DART was a concern as it was so obscure, and it would be very difficult for anyone wishing to follow it to actually do that.     So we have the same Project being sound in the eye of one audit group, and suspect in another’s? The only way to understand this would be to open up all the detail for public investigation and that we are afraid , will never happen.

As for the financial benefits to Luton residents, whose funds have been diverted to pay for it, we were told that for every extra 1 million passengers, the local economy would get an increase of around 800 new extra jobs, while the value of the airport would increase by £100 million and the revenue of LLAL will would increase by £3million

But wait, the DART isn’t about passenger growth, it’s about cutting road traffic, so the first fact is irrelevant. Since 2013 not one new full time job has been created; from LLAL’s own figures, any jobs created have now gone as the tracks are built, and they were only for the life of the Project. The running of the DART will be a mostly autonomous system, and maintenance staff will surely be under the warranty of the manufacturer? 

All assets have a paper value, and they then have a current market value.  If a potential investor/buyer will only pay the current market price, the paper value is irrelevant.    Residents of Luton have no interest in the value to LLAL, as all the income that company generates for many years to come will go to paying off the DART and other debt-ridden Projects; as freely admitted by LBC.

Residents want income for the services and facilities in the town not a Project 90% will probably never use.

The final paragraph of the letter, sums up the thinking behind the Project, and its growing cost base as it will be at least 12 months overdue:- “In conclusion, LLAL has elected to make substantial investment in the Luton DART. It will deliver on the planning obligations to achieve a modal shift away from car to train. Keeping cars off the roads will reduce congestion and pollution, bringing real benefits to Luton residents. Moreover, it will enable the airport to deliver passenger numbers up to the planning cap which will generate income to local charities and the council to use in the delivery of services. The Business Case is a five-case model that has been independently reviewed and the shareholder is active in the management of the Project.”

If those reading this are residents of Luton, do you think this is good value for your money?  

If you are someone who lives with the intrusion of airport operations in the wider area, or if you are concerned about the environmental impacts of the airport, does this give you hope that LLAL will actually deliver on their “green growth only” mantra for its planned expansion to 36 million passengers, or put cash above all else?

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