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National Audit Office report: Improving the UK’s science capability for managing animal diseases

Improving the UK’s science capability for managing animal diseases

This report examines whether Defra is well placed to redevelop the UK’s primary site for managing threats from animal diseases.

Background to the report

Animal diseases have major impacts on the UK food industry and trade, demonstrated by outbreaks such as Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis (BSE), Foot and Mouth disease and most recently, Avian Influenza. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) leads government policy on animal health in England. The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) is an executive agency of Defra and is responsible for the delivery of Defra’s policy objectives in this area.

APHA’s Weybridge site (Weybridge) houses the UK’s primary science capability for managing threats from animal diseases. Weybridge is in poor condition, with ageing buildings that need major repair and replacement, and a lack of capacity to carry out science work. Defra began the Science Capability in Animal Health programme (the Programme) to redevelop Weybridge in 2017. The Programme is at an early stage. HM Treasury agreed Defra’s first Programme Business Case with conditions in November 2021. Construction of the main science hub is forecast to start in 2027. As well as the Programme, Weybridge has a critical works programme to ensure continued regulatory compliance and to maintain capability.


Scope of the report

This report examines how the Weybridge site has reached such a poor condition, and whether Defra is well placed to deliver value for money from the Programme to redevelop and transform the site. Our evaluative criteria are based on what we would expect to see in programmes at a similarly early stage, drawing on insights from our work looking at major programmes across government. We focus on:

  • Defra’s management of and investment in the Weybridge site over the past 20 years and why the site needs redeveloping (Part One);
  • whether Defra has set up the Programme in line with good practice (Part Two); and
  • how Defra is managing the Programme’s risks, highlighting specific risks Defra will need to manage as it progresses to the next tranche of the Programme (Part Three).


Report conclusions

Defra has allowed its Weybridge site to deteriorate to a state where some of the facilities are no longer fit for purpose. The level of under-investment and poor strategic management of the site has greatly increased the risk and complexity of the redevelopment programme. Any delays or difficulty completing the Programme may expose APHA’s operations to greater risk, potentially limiting its ability to respond effectively to a major disease outbreak. Recognising and managing these risks from the start will be important to delivering value for money.

In this context, it has taken a long time for Defra to set up the Programme and to understand its scope, which is now reflected in the increased estimated costs of the Programme. Defra has recently put in place many of the right elements for successful delivery of the Programme. Given the current uncertainty, Defra is rightly investing time upfront to reduce this uncertainty and is trying to learn lessons from other programmes. Defra needs to use this time to further develop its cost, schedule and benefit estimates, to present a robust case which can secure funding and demonstrate value for money.


Publication details:

ISBN: 9781786044327 [Buy a hard copy of this report]

HC: 64, 2022-23

Published date: June 15, 2022