UK Politics

Fire and rescue overhaul still worries MPs

Fire Engine
Image caption Local councils say progress is being made

MPs have expressed fresh concerns about the legacy of an aborted restructuring of fire and rescue services in England.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee said four out of nine regional control centres, whose planned introduction was scrapped in 2010, were still vacant.

And it said a new system based on local improvements was running late and may not deliver value for money.

Ministers say they have taken "decisive action" to protect public money and the programme was now "on schedule".

Plans conceived by the last Labour government to consolidate 46 emergency control rooms into nine regional centres, connected by a national computer system, were abandoned after six years at an estimated cost of £482m.

'Economies of scale'

MPs described this as "ones of the worst cases of project failure" they had ever seen and said the repercussions were still being felt.

Four of the nine buildings earmarked for the centres have lain empty ever since and the cross-party committee warned that the prospects of finding tenants for the specially designed facilities "do not look good".

Subsidies may have to be offered to find occupiers although it said the cost of doing so must be minimised.

The MPs said they also remained to be convinced that the coalition's alternative approach - in which £84m is being spent to improve 22 control rooms and encourage greater collaboration between different authorities - was working.

Several projects were running late, it suggested, and it doubted whether local managers had sufficient commercial expertise to get the best deals from contractors and monitor contracts effectively.

It said ministers must ensure that national objectives - such as ensuring emergency resilience - continued to be met while allowing individual authorities to procure services and systems separately.

"There is a risk that the DCLG has swung from an overly prescriptive national approach to one that does not provide enough national oversight and co-ordination and fails to meet national needs or achieve economies of scale," committee chair Margaret Hodge said.

'Nonsensical mergers'

"Devolving decision-making and delivery to local bodies does not remove the duty on the Department to account for value for money," the Labour MP added.

The Department for Communities and Local Government said it had been right to cancel a project that was "over-budget, behind schedule and failed to work" and to pursue a totally different approach.

"A programme of locally determined improvements have been put in place which are increasing collaboration, efficiency and resilience across fire authorities' 999 control room arrangements," a spokesman said.

"This includes better technology and faster and more reliable fall-back arrangements.

"The programme is now on schedule and on budget and will produce £126m in savings for taxpayers by 2021-22. The PAC report fails to take these factors into account and many of the conclusions that the report draws are not supported by evidence."

The Local Government Association said the report threatened to "undermine the progress being made" but the Fire Brigades Union said the MPs' recommendations were "very sound".

"This colossal waste of taxpayers' money must not be allowed to happen again," said Matt Wrack, its general secretary.

"The taxpayer is still paying for buildings that were built with private money, and money set aside to modernise control centres has been misspent on nonsensical mergers of control regions that are not even geographical neighbours.

"If we're to protect public safety and national resilience, we need national support and coordination of control centres - and to include the expertise of control staff themselves in the planning and delivery of services."

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