New EastEnders set goes £27m over budget

Cast members outside the Queen Vic in WalfordCast members outside the Queen Vic in Walford
Cast members outside the Queen Vic in Walford
It should have been a pub refit, but the cost of rebuilding television's Queen Vic has gone £27m over budget

A BBC project to rebuild the bar and the rest of the EastEnders set has overrun by two and a half years and will cost a total of £86m in licence payers’ money.

Lack of expertise, over-optimism on costs and delays in construction have led to a 45 per cent increase in the budget for the project, according to the National Audit Office.

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It concluded that the BBC cannot provide value for money on the wider project, which will see the 1984 set of the soap in Elstree rebuilt and expanded.

The rebuilding, which was expected to save the corporation nearly £500,000 a year, has been beset by problems. It was hoped originally that it would save money, after the BBC was set the goal of reducing costs by £800m under its new charter.

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, said: “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 original set of EastEnders was intended to be used for two years, but has been in use for 34. It had been commissioned after Lord Grade’s ATV, which built the Elstree studio, was forced out in the reshuffle of ITV companies at the beginning of the 1908s. In a series of moves which saw his company make an enforced move to Nottingham and change its name to Central TV, Elstree was sold to the BBC, which had long wanted a base with the capacity to produce a soap that would compete with ITV’s Coronation Street. The two have been ratings rivals ever since.

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A rebuild of the original set, codenamed E20, had been mooted in 2015, when it was estimated at £59m, with completion by August this year.

But the auditors’ report found that the BBC had “inadequate expertise” in construction projects, that the EastEnders production team was not properly involved in the work on the set, and that 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.

It 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.”

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The new set is now expected to be delivered in 2023. It will include a “front lot” replicating Albert Square and a “back lot”, made to look more like the streets of 21st century London.

The BBC said: “Like any building work of this scale, there have been challenges on the way.

“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.”