The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:
“The original FiReControl project was one of the worst cases of project failure we have seen and wasted at least £482 million of taxpayers' money.
“Three years after the project was cancelled, the DCLG still hasn’t decided what it is going to do with many of the specially designed, high-specification facilities and buildings which had been built. Four of the nine regional control centres are still empty and look likely to remain so.
“The Department has now provided fire and rescue authorities with an additional £82 million to implement a new approach based on 22 separate and locally-led projects.
“The new programme has already slipped by three months and projected savings are now less than originally predicted. Seven of the 22 projects are reportedly running late and two have been delayed by 12 months. We are therefore sceptical that projected savings, benefits and timescales will be achieved.
“Relying on multiple local projects risks value for money. 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.
“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 coordination and fails to meet national needs or achieve economies of scale.
“We want the Department to explain to us how individual fire and rescue authorities with varied degrees of local engagement and collaboration can provide the needed level of interoperability and resilience.
“Devolving decision-making and delivery to local bodies does not remove the duty on the Department to account for value for money. It needs to ensure that national objectives, such as the collaboration needed between fire authorities to deal with national disasters and challenges, are achieved.”
Margaret Hodge was speaking as the Committee published its 16th Report of this Session. On the basis of evidence from the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser and the Chief Fire Officers of the Hampshire and Cheshire Fire and Rescue Authorities, it examined the progress in minimising waste from the FiRecontrol project and achieving the original objectives through other means.
Conclusions and recommendations
- The FiReControl project, to replace the control room functions of 46 local fire and rescue authorities with a network of nine regional control centres using a national computer system, was launched in 2004. But following a series of delays and difficulties, it was terminated in December 2010 with none of the original objectives achieved. In our report on the project, we noted that to prevent further waste the Department needed to find alternative uses for the empty control centre buildings to reduce nugatory costs and make sure that further sums spent to achieve the original project objectives through other means were spent more effectively. Following the cancellation of FiReControl the Department made new money (£81 million) available to local fire and rescue authorities to support improvements in their control rooms. It also made £1.8 million available for interoperability and collaborative partnership working.
- Devolving decision making and delivery to local bodies does not remove the duty on the Department to account for value for money and secure assurance about national resilience. Although fire and rescue authorities are making decisions locally on how to organise their control rooms, the Department needs to ensure that national objectives, such as the interoperability and collaboration across fire authorities necessary for national disasters and challenges are achieved. Given that collaboration between neighbouring fire and rescue authorities is not mandatory and not universal, it is unclear how the new approach for increasing control room efficiency and resilience is achieving the national resilience people expect.
The Department must set out how the new approach will achieve the required fire and rescue authority interoperability and resilience to meet national demand given the variability of local engagement and collaboration across the sector.
- There are risks to value for money from multiple local projects. Each of the 22 local projects is now procuring the services and systems they need separately. Local teams need to have the right skills to get good deals from suppliers and to monitor contracts effectively. We were sceptical that all the teams had the appropriate procurement and IT skills to secure good value for money. National support and coordination can help ensure systems are compatible and fire and rescue authorities learn from each other, but the Department has largely devolved these roles to the individual fire and rescue authorities. 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.
The Department needs to satisfy itself that the new local approach to improving control rooms and resilience is delivering national resilience and value for money by scrutinising local fire and rescue authorities more closely and, where necessary, challenging them more robustly.
- The new programme has already slipped by three months and projected savings are now less than originally predicted. The Department reports that seven of the 22 projects are running late and two of these projects have slipped by 12 months. The expected savings have fallen by £2 million, to £126 million. Despite this, the Accounting Officer was confident the programme would be delivered by March 2015, only three months later than originally planned. Given the current slippage, we are not confident that projected savings, benefits and timescales will be achieved.
When national summaries of project progress are prepared we would like the Accounting Officer to write to us setting out how he is mitigating the risk of further slippage and assuring value for money, and explaining the level of challenge being placed on fire authorities’ reports of progress.
- Four of the nine regional control centres still remain empty. The prospects of finding new tenants for the four regional control centres that remain empty do not look good and costs falling to the Department remain significant. The Department has had to offer subsidies to dispose of some of the centres and may have to do so for the four that remain empty. In at least one of these cases the level of subsidy the Department was willing to provide was insufficient to convince a local fire and rescue authority to occupy the building.
The Department must minimise the costs it has to bear for the redundant regional control centres. In determining the extent of subsidies to offer to prospective public sector tenants, it should consider the wider costs to the public purse, not just the impact on its own accounts.