John Prescott's fire centre 'folly' still costing taxpayers millions

MPs attack Coalition for failing to shut down failed £482m project for regional command posts three years after it was scrapped

A “white elephant” project to build new fire control centres which wasted £482m of public money is still costing taxpayers millions of pounds – three years after it was scrapped.

The previous Labour Government announced in 2004 that 46 local fire and rescue services would be concentrated in nine regional centres. But after a string of delays and problems the plan was abandoned by the Coalition in 2010.

Today Commons spending watchdogs warned that another £82m being spent on clearing up the mess is also in danger of proving a waste of money.

Four of the nine centres are still empty and seven of the 22 locally-led projects that replaced the ill-fated FiReControl system are running late, two by 12 months, and expected savings have fallen by £2m to £126m.

Margaret Hodge, Labour chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), described the original scheme as “one of the worst cases of project failure we have seen.” She said: “Three years after the project was cancelled, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) still hasn’t decided what to do with many of the specially designed, high-specification facilities and buildings.”

The committee warned in a report that there is a risk of going from one extreme – with a “top-down” national approach – to another, with not enough oversight and co-ordination to secure economies of scale and objectives such as being able to handle national disasters.

According to the MPs, the department must minimise the costs it has to bear from the redundant 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.” they said.

The original plan, under the private finance initiative, was launched by Lord Prescott when he was Deputy Prime Minister and was branded “Prescott’s folly” by the Fire Brigades Union.

Lord Prescott has blamed “bloody” civil servants for its failure, saying: “When I left office that was a programme that was going to cost £100m. They confirmed it was on budget. Twelve months after I left it went up to this enormous figure.”

A DCLG spokesman said last night: “This Government has taken decisive action to protect taxpayers’ interests, cancelling the flawed FiReControl contract, which was over budget, behind schedule and failed to work. 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. This includes better technology and faster and more reliable fallback arrangements.”

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