Fire control fiasco 'an extraordinary failure'

Richard Bacon MP Image copyright bbc
Image caption South Norfolk Conservative MP Richard Bacon said £649m could have been spent much better locally

There are a lot of questions that need to be answered over the aborted Firecontrol project.

This week MPs made the first stab at trying to get to the bottom of the fiasco.

The chief civil servant at the Department for Communities and Local Government, Sir Bob Kerslake, appeared before the Public Accounts Committee.

He had a torrid time.

Delays and costs

Firecontrol was devised by Labour back in 2004. The aim was to create a centralised fire and rescue control system. County fire control rooms would go and, instead, all 999 calls would be handled by one big centre.

In the eastern counties that centre was going to be at Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire where £23m was spent on a new building which now stands empty.

The coalition government scrapped the project last year because of constant delays and the growing expense of the scheme.

Last week the National Audit Office (NAO) concluded that £469m had been wasted on the project, blaming the lack of consistent leadership and ineffective governance.

The Public Accounts Committee believed the final cost of the project could be as high as £649m and was looking for someone to blame.

"This is an extraordinary failure of leadership which has cost the taxpayer nearly £3/4bn," fumed the South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon.

Sir Bob admitted that the project had been "very ambitious and complex".

He told the committee that ministers were concerned that fire services across the country had different technical systems and were worried about their resilience in the event of a major emergency.

That was the thinking behind Firecontrol.

Expensive reorganisation

Sir Bob said it was realised that re-organising the fire service would be expensive but "officials were of the view that the benefits of the scheme outweighed the cost".

He told the committee that there were flaws with the IT system and "insufficient analysis of the overall costs and risks of the project".

Matthew Hancock (Con, West Suffolk) worked out that with a total of 1,400 control staff working across the country the failed project had cost £400,000 per controller.

"All this just to get them to talk to each other," he exclaimed. "Wouldn't it have been better to buy them all mobile phones?"

He told Sir Bob that the fire and rescue service in Suffolk was having to make cuts to its service while at the same time the government was having to write off £649m on the wasted project.

Steven Barclay (Con, Cambs North East) seized on the revelation that £68.6m had been spent on consultants. "Has anyone lost their job as a result of this programme going wrong?" he asked.

"No," replied Sir Bob.

"If this was the private sector heads would roll," Mr Barclay responded.

'Lions led by donkeys'

Mr Bacon said one of the major faults was the project was drawn up with very little consultation with the local fire and rescue services.

"It was lions led by donkeys. £649m could have been spent much better locally."

The committee was told that the regional control centres, including the one at Waterbeach, are on a 25 year lease, owned by the developers.

The government hopes a use can be found for them but at the moment there are no plans for the Waterbeach building.

Sir Bob told the committee that he was "sitting here taking responsibility" for the project's failure.

Mr Bacon was not impressed. "It's just an uncomfortable couple of hours for you," he replied.

You can expect his committee's report to be very damning.

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