The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:
"The Department's ambitious vision of abolishing 46 local fire and rescue control rooms around the country and replacing them with nine state of the art regional control centres ended in complete failure. The taxpayer has lost nearly half a billion pounds and eight of the completed regional control centres remain as empty and costly white elephants.
The success of the so-called FiReControl project crucially turned on the cooperation of locally accountable and independent Fire and Rescue Services. The Department’s failure both to recognize this and try to ensure local buy-in fatally undermined the project from the start.
The project was rushed, without proper understanding of costs or risks. The leadership relied far too much on external consultants and the frequent departures of senior staff also contributed to weak management and oversight of the project.
The contract to implement a national IT system linking the control centres was not even awarded until a full three years after the project started. The contract itself was poorly designed and awarded to a company without relevant experience. The computer system was simply never delivered.
No one has been held to account for this project failure, one of the worst we have seen for many years, and the careers of most of the senior staff responsible have carried on as if nothing had gone wrong at all and the consultants and contractor continue to work on many other government projects.
The Department now plans to spend a further £84.8 million to secure the original objectives of FiReControl, so that there is a co-ordinated response to national incidents. However it is not clear to us how this extra spending will deliver value for money or achieve the objectives intended."
Margaret Hodge was speaking as the committee published its 50th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from Department for Communities and Local Government (the Department) and representatives from the Fire and Rescue Service, examined the delivery and cancellation of the FiReControl project
The FiReControl Project
This is one of the worst cases of project failure that the committee has seen in many years. FiReControl was an ambitious project with the objectives of improving national resilience, efficiency and technology by replacing the control room functions of 46 local Fire and Rescue Services in England with a network of nine purpose-built regional control centres using a national computer system. The project was launched in 2004, but following a series of delays and difficulties, was terminated in December 2010 with none of the original objectives achieved and a minimum of £469 million being wasted.
The project was flawed from the outset, as the Department attempted, without sufficient mandatory powers, to impose a single, national approach on locally accountable Fire and Rescue Services who were reluctant to change the way they operated. Yet rather than engaging with the Services to persuade them of the project’s merits, the Department excluded them from decisions about the design of the regional control centres and the proposed IT solution, even though these decisions would leave local services with potential long-term costs and residual liabilities to which they had not agreed.
The Department launched the project too quickly, driven by its wider aims to ensure a better co-ordinated national response to national disasters, such as terrorist attacks, rail crashes or floods. The Department also wanted to encourage and embed regional government in England. But it acted without applying basic project approval checks and balances – taking decisions before a business case, project plan or procurement strategy had been developed and tested amongst Fire Services. The result was hugely unrealistic forecast costs and savings, naïve over-optimism on the deliverability of the IT solution and under- appreciation or mitigation of the risks. The Department demonstrated poor judgement in approving the project and failed to provide appropriate checks and challenge.
The fundamentals of project management continued to be absent as the project proceeded. So the new fire control centres were constructed and completed whilst there was considerable delay in even awarding the IT contract, let alone developing the essential IT infrastructure. Consultants made up over half the management team (costing £69 million by 2010) but were not managed. The project had convoluted governance arrangements, with a lack of clarity over roles and responsibilities. There was a high turnover of senior managers although none have been held accountable for the failure. The committee considers this to be an extraordinary failure of leadership. Yet no individuals have been held accountable for the failure and waste associated with this project.
The Department awarded the IT contract to a company with no direct experience of supplying the emergency services and who mostly relied on sub-contractors over which the Department had no visibility or control. The contract was poorly designed, lacking early milestones which would have enabled the Department to hold the contractor accountable for project delays. Payments within the contract were scheduled too late, and created tension in an already poor relationship. This was made worse by the Department's weak contract management and its failure to ensure the contractor followed the contracted approach.
Following the cancellation
Following the cancellation of the project, the Department has earmarked £84.8 million to meet the project's original objectives, to improve resilience, efficiency and interoperability within the Fire and Rescue Service. It has invited bids for this money from each of the Fire and Rescue services. These arrangements, however, rely on the voluntary collaboration of individual services, and we are concerned that the Department could not tell us how it will ensure certainty of response in the event of a large scale incident, or whether the £84.8 million will provide value for money.