I want to update the House on my Department’s progress with the Regional Control Centre buildings - the main legacy asset of the terminated FiReControl project from the last Administration.
The nine Regional Control Centre buildings were procured through a private developer scheme from 2004 onwards and completed between June 2007 and February 2010. The leases run for 20 or 25 years from completion. As noted on 26 January 2009, Official Report, House of Commons, Column 108W, the last Administration decided not to include break clauses in the contracts, forcing taxpayers to shoulder the ultimate liability for the empty buildings.
The National Audit Office, in their report The Failure of Fire Control, were highly critical of the top-down FiReControl project. They stated:
The FiReControl project was flawed from the outset because it did not have the support of those essential to its success - local fire and rescue services. The Department rushed the start of the project, failing to follow proper procedures. Ineffective checks and balances during initiation and early stages meant the Department committed itself to the project on the basis of broad-brush and inaccurate estimates of costs and benefits and an unrealistic delivery timetable, and agreed an inadequate contract with its IT supplier. The Department under-appreciated the project’s complexity, and then mismanaged the IT contractor’s performance and delivery. The Department failed to provide the necessary leadership to make the project successful, over-relying on poorly managed consultants and failing to sort out early problems with delivery by the contractor. The Department took a firmer grip of the project from 2009 and terminated the contract in December 2010 to avoid even more money being wasted
(National Audit Office, The Failure of the FiReControl project, HC1272, 1 July 2011).
Following the termination of the FiReControl project in December 2010 by the Coalition Government, my Department explored whether fire and rescue authorities could make use of the centres as they were purpose built for control services. Our next preference was for other emergency services to take over the buildings. Our prime aims were to ensure value for taxpayers’ money and achieve a localist approach to improvements in resilience.
I can report success for four of the buildings. One is already in use as a control centre and three further buildings will be used by emergency services, as follows:
- The London building was officially opened on 1 February 2012 - in good time for the Olympic and Paralympic Games - and is fully operational as the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority’s control centre.
- As announced by the Minister for Shipping on 22 November 2011, Official Report, House of Commons, Column 163, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency will use the Fareham building as their Operations Centre.
- The Warrington building will be used as a shared control service for four fire authorities (Greater Manchester, Cheshire, Lancashire and Cumbria).
- County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Authority will use the Durham building as their new headquarters and control room.
Having sought public sector tenants, my Department is launching a marketing campaign to attract tenants from a wider range of organisations for the remaining five buildings, including from the private sector. These buildings are located in Wolverhampton, Cambridge, Taunton, Wakefield and Castle Donington. They are built to a high specification and have a number of desirable features, including excellent resilience, good security and easy access to major road networks. Buyers of the control rooms will also benefit from the 6,000 a piece deluxe, polished chrome ‘Brasilia’ espresso machines that were purchased for each of the centres by the last Administration (as outlined on 15 March 2010, Official Report, House of Commons, Column 665W).
Marketing begins in late July, with sale boards going up at the five buildings. Other marketing activities will comprise some print and online advertising, a brochure for interested organisations, a dedicated website and site visits. My Department has looked for cost effective marketing channels, including no-cost and low-cost routes, and will keep the outcomes under review in order to assess effectiveness and progress.
In the meantime, we have taken firm steps to reduce the costs of the unused control centres. For example, the facilities management bill has been reduced by 25 per cent and the utilities bill by 35 per cent. A second review of the facilities management arrangements will result in a further reduction from April 2013. While we will continue to seek to drive down these costs to make savings for the taxpayer, the largest saving will come from finding suitable tenants to take over the buildings.
I want to inform the House of my Department’s intention to provide an Authorised Guarantee Agreement to the landlord of the North West Regional Control Centre building. This statement sits alongside a departmental minute I have laid before the House setting out the contingent liability associated with the provision of an Authorised Guarantee Agreement.
As set out in the departmental minute, the lease for the North West Control Centre in Warrington has been assigned to NW Fire Control Ltd, a consortium of four fire and rescue authorities. The consortium will use the building to provide a shared control service. This is positive news, which will result in emergency calls being taken in a specialist, highly resilient, purpose-built centre. We are providing an Authorised Guarantee Agreement to the landlord, as provided for in the lease.
My Department and NW Fire Control Ltd have already entered into a formal agreement regarding the control centre building for the lifetime of the lease, which runs until 2033. As such, we expect there to be no costs to Government from the provision of this Authorised Guarantee Agreement.
It is clearly unsatisfactory that taxpayers have had to foot the bill for this poorly conceived and poorly implemented project from the last Administration, and taxpayers will no doubt resent such expensive buildings lying empty because of the botched procurement and handling of FireControl under the last Government. However, the Coalition Government has taken firm action to protect the public purse from the botched programme and sought to minimise the cost of these inherited liabilities, in as far as we are able to given the constraints of the contracts that were signed.
Ministers will continue to keep Parliament informed of progress.