More than £8 million was spent on a failed project to encourage Helmand poppy farmers switch to alternative crops, a Birmingham MP has revealed.

The UK funded an agricultural business park in war-torn Helmand in Afghanistan, complete with its own airfield to export goods across the country.

The aim was to boost the province’s economy and help local farmers abandon poppy cultivation linked to the heroin trade, by providing them with a secure site to launch new agriculture-based businesses.

But the scheme was abandoned when officials decided the business park was not economically viable - leaving the Afghanis with a new airfield but not the businesses that were supposed to use it.

MP Steve McCabe (Lab Selly Oak) accused Ministers of wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, and of attempting to conceal the true cost of the scheme.

International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone blamed Afghanistan - telling MPs that an Afghani Government agency had failed to live up to its promises to support the scheme.

The Bost Airfield and Agricultural Business Park was initially designed to promote “significant growth in Helmand’s licit economy”, according to the Department for International Development (DFID).

Steve McCabe MP
Steve McCabe MP
 

Papers published by DFID show that the success of the project was originally to be judged by the “willingness of Helmandi farmers to cultivate licit crops in future seasons”.

It was funded from £32 million set aside by the UK Government to provide infrastructure in Helmand between 2009 and 2013.

The complex was to be surrounded by a security wall and to have its own fire station and border police station, reflecting the poor security situation in Helmand.

Ministers hoped that by providing a secure environment for businesses, and direct air links to the rest of the country, new agricultural businesses would flourish. The airfield cut journey times between Kabul and Helmand from two days to a one-and-a-half-hour flight.

But the business park proposal was scrapped in 2013. Ms Featherstone told the Commons that this decision was made after the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency failed to live up to its commitments, which included finding a regular power supplier for the site, dealing with land ownership issues and carrying out environmental clearance for the park.

She argued that the airport, which is up and running,  provides a valuable service to Helmand even without the business park.

However, Mr MCabe said that through a series of questions in Parliament and Freedom of Information requests, he had established that planes leaving the airfield did not carry freight and appeared to be making little contribution to the local economy.

Leading a Commons debate, he said: “In January 2013, I discovered that the project was abandoned after a considerable amount of expenditure from DFID,”

The Government admitted spending £8.42 million on the project, but he suspected the true figure was higher as other funding streams had also been used to provide infrastructure, he said.

“It has been suggested that several million pounds was spent on roads and access to the park. That appears to have involved laying roads, digging them up and relaying them.”

But Ministers had refused to supply details, he said.

“It seemed obvious that the Department was being less than helpful. I was not asking about national security, issues affecting the safety of our troops or negotiations with the Taliban, but a project on which a considerable amount of British taxpayers’ money was spent by our aid Department

“ It appears the project was originally intended to assist local traders and businessmen in the Lashkar Gar region, perhaps to divert them from growing poppies. It was envisaged that they could be encouraged to grow crops and develop other products on a safe site with a reliable source of energy and easy access, and then transport their produce to other parts of Afghanistan from the airfield - hardly earth-shattering stuff.

“But not enough homework was done and not enough attention was paid to concerns before lots of our taxpayers’ money was spent. Apparently, virtually no work was done to identify potential numbers of interested parties who might lease or buy plots of land on the agri-park, a key feature of the plan.”

The Prime Minister meets troops
David Cameron meets troops during a visit to Afghanistan

Mr McCabe said: “I am a supporter of aid, but my constituents and I have a right to know what our money is being spent on. There is a funny smell about the Bost agricultural park and airfield project, and nothing that the Secretary of State has done so far has helped to clear it up.”

Ms Featherstone told the Commons: “In 2012, DFID gave our in-country partners a fixed deadline to deliver the commitments that they had previously agreed in relation to the business park. Towards the end of 2012, it became apparent that our Afghan partners would not meet those commitments; they simply were not forthcoming.

“It was clear, therefore, that the business park could not be completed within the original time frame and that further UK investment in the work would be poor value for money”

She added: “Work continued on the successful upgrades to Bost airfield and was completed in November 2013. There are now two return flights each week from Kabul to Bost . . . cutting the journey time from two days to one and a half hours.”