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Local fire control project ‘lacks oversight’ warns PAC

By Richard Johnstone | 23 June 2013

The government’s scheme to improve fire service control centres in England following the decision to scrap the national Fire Control programme is running late and could fail to be value for money, the Public Accounts Committee has warned.

Examining the progress made in winding down the original project, and introducing a local alternative, the committee said there was a ‘real risk’ the government was not exercising enough oversight.

The PAC said the government’s decision to scrap Fire Control, which intended to replace 46 control rooms with a national network of nine regional centres, ended one of the worst cases of project failure ever seen by the PAC. The project was cancelled in December 2010, six years after its launch, after a series of delays led to none of the original objectives being achieved.

But MPs said the decision to award £82m to 22 fire authorities to pay for local improvements following the cancellation did not ‘remove the duty’ to ensure national resilience. The Department for Communities and Local Government must ensure objectives, such as the interoperability and collaboration across fire authorities necessary for national disasters and challenges, are now achieved through the local plans.

However, given that collaboration between neighbouring fire and rescue authorities is not mandatory under the grant awards, it is ‘unclear’ if this will happen, the Fire Control: update report stated.  ‘There is a risk that the department has swung from an overly prescriptive national approach to one that provides insufficient national oversight and coordination and fails to meet national needs or achieve economies of scale.’

There are other potential problems in relying on multiple local projects, the committee said. Each fire authority is now procuring the services and systems they need separately, but MPs warned they are ‘sceptical’ that each authority has ‘the appropriate procurement and IT skills to secure good value for money’.

Seven of the 22 local projects are already running late, with two delayed by a year, the report added. Expected savings from the cancellation of Fire Control have also fallen, by £2m to £126m. ‘Given the current slippage, we are not confident that projected savings, benefits and timescales will be achieved,’ the report stated.

PAC chair Margaret Hodge said that the original Fire Control project had wasted at least £482m of taxpayers' money.

However, she added the department’s decision to go ahead with 22 local schemes remained risky. ‘We are not confident that local teams have the right IT and procurement skills to get good deals from suppliers and to monitor contracts effectively.’

Responding to the report, local government minister Brandon Lewis said the original Fire Control project was ‘a vanity programme’ by the last government. ‘The top-down project was incompetently administered by the Labour government and was a disgraceful waste of half a billion pounds of taxpayers' money. It was over-budget and it didn’t work.

‘This government is cleaning up Labour's mess, taking the tough decisions to minimise taxpayer liabilities, whilst increasing collaboration, efficiency and resilience across the fire service through locally-led reform.’

A DCLG spokesman added that the PAC’s conclusions were ‘not supported by evidence’.

He said: ‘A programme of locally determined improvements has been put in place which are increasing collaboration, efficiency and resilience across fire authorities’ 999 control room arrangements. 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 savings for taxpayers by 2021/22.’

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