The BBC has been slammed for allowing the cost of the new EastEnders set to spiral out of control to £27million MORE than originally planned.
The E20 project, rebuild the soap’s HQ in Elstree, Herts, is now costing a staggering £87million of licence fee money, rather than £60m.
In the original plans, set out in 2013, bosses said it would be finished this year. But this was later pushed back to 2020 and later delays mean some areas now won’t be finished until 2023.
Labour MP Wes Streeting, who represents East London constituency Ilford North, blasted: “This looks like a case of art imitating life as the cost of Albert Square seems to have rocketed as fast as East London’s house prices.
“Even avid fans of the soap will raise eyebrows at these costs.”
The 45% rise in the budget has been blamed on lack of expertise, over-optimism regarding costs and delays in construction.
In a damning report, the National Audit Office concludes that the BBC is no longer delivering value for money on the project, which aims to replace the set constructed to last just two years back in 1984.
The aim of the project is, ultimately, to save the corporation almost £500,000 a year and to allow filming in high definition for the first time.
In 2013, the BBC said E20 – which consists of a front lot and back lot – would cost £59.7 million and to be completed by August 2018. Due partly to cost increases, the BBC revised its plans in 2015, moving its target completion date to October 2020.
However, in October 2017 that was revised again – the BBC now forecasts that E20 will cost £86.7 million and not be fully completed until 2023.
The NAO report found that the BBC had “inadequate expertise” in construction projects, the EastEnders production team was not properly involved in the work on the set, and there was an 11-month wait to secure a construction contract.
The watchdog cited “over-optimistic initial estimates of costs”, inflation, and delays on health and safety grounds such as dealing with asbestos.
The NAO concluded: “The BBC will not be able to deliver value for money on the E20 programme in the way that it envisaged in 2015. Disappointingly, some of the reasons for this were built into E20 at the outset and could have been addressed earlier.”
On Wednesday MPs were lining up to blast the Corporation for its poor planning.
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Lib Dem frontbencher Layla Moran said: “The Queen Vic and Albert Square are dear to my heart like lots of people, and there is no doubt in recent years the show has played a major role is raising many important societal issues.
“However, I can’t imagine any of the straight-talking characters accepting this outrageous overspend of public money.”
And shadow Arts Minister Kevin Brennan said: “Eastenders is one of the nation’s favourite shows and, although we all want to prevent Albert Square falling down, it’s important that the BBC does its utmost to deliver value for money for the licence fee payer.”
The BBC has argued that the many problems encountered with the building work were ‘beyond our control’.
But Meg Hillier MP, chairwoman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said: “It is critical, given the BBC’s funding pressures, that every pound of licence fee payers’ money is spent effectively.
“It is concerning that the BBC has been unable to keep to budget and time on this project again, given my committee had already heard about the need to revise its scope in 2016.”
The old EastEnders set has encountered problems with health and safety, continual investment in refurbishments, and an inability to shoot in high-definition due to the decaying set.
It was hoped the move to a brick-built replacement, rather than facades, would ultimately save money after the BBC was set the goal of reducing costs by £800million under the new charter.
The project was due to be completed by August for £59.9million. A budget was approved in 2016 for the increased amount of £62million and a delay of 26 months.
Now the set is expected to finally be delivered in 2023. It will include a Front Lot, which replicates Albert Square and the traditional set, and a Back Lot, made to look more like the streets of 21st century London.
The NAO report added: “E20 has been subject to ongoing scrutiny and reporting and, in the past 18 months, the BBC has made many improvements. The benefits of the programme still appear to be broadly achievable, albeit at a later date.”
The BBC said in a statement: “The set of EastEnders was built in 1984 and only intended for use for two years. Over 30 years later, the show remains one of the BBC’s flagship programmes and yet is filming from a set that is no longer fit for purpose.
“The new set will be suitable for HD filming for the first time and extend Walford to better reflect modern East End London.
“It’s a large, complex project which has already delivered many other vital improvements at BBC Elstree Centre, but like any building work of this scale there have been challenges on the way, including construction market issues beyond our control and from working on a brownfield site.
“As the NAO recognises, we’ve already made improvements and are keeping the project under close scrutiny.”
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