By Tony Collins
The Times reports today that taxpayers are paying more than £1m a month on the rent and upkeep of fire control rooms across England that have never been used. The purpose-built control centres look ready for immediate use, with open-plan desks fitted with desktop monitors and keyboards, and huge screens on a wall at the front of the control rooms which are supposed to help fire and rescue crews mobilise appliances and manage incidents.
Only there’s no working software. The Department for Communities and Local Government negotiated the end of a contract with the main contractor EADS for software to run the regional control centres in December 2010. Officials concluded that the software could not be delivered within an acceptable timeframe. The regional control centres were completed before the IT project was cancelled.
The cost of the centres has been uncovered after a request under the FOI Act. The Times devotes much of its page three to a story under the headline:
Revealed: scandal of the £1m-a-month fire service ‘superstations’ lying empty.
Only one of nine regional centres is in use. The other eight incur rent, electricity, water and repair costs at £1,134,566 a month. Costs will be incurred for years because there are no break clauses in the agreements to lease the buildings. Two leases come to an end in 2027, one in 2028, two in 2032, three in 2033 and one in 2035.
A spokesman for the Department said that agreement has been reached for a further two of the buildings to be used by local fire authorities. Officials are searching for public or private sector tenants to occupy the other regional centres.
Lord Prescott, the former Deputy Prime Minister, who authorised the start of the technology project in 2004, said he had been kept in the dark by civil servants on the rising costs of the scheme. He said it had been on budget when he left the department in 2007.
Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, said the failure of Firecontrol was an “expensive reminder of why you can’t trust Labour to run anything”. But the Coalition’s coming to power has not stopped central government IT-related failures.
Why Firecontrol failed
Firecontrol followed the same tracks to a cliff edge that have caught out civil servants, ministers and suppliers on other government computer-related projects.
The National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee found that the Firecontrol project was rushed, had little support from those who would use it, costs and complexity were underestimated, there was an over-reliance on consultants and a lack of accountability for decisions made – or not made.
The idea was to replace 46 local control rooms with nine, linked regional centres, which would be equipped with new standardised computer systems to handle calls, mobilise equipment and manage incidents.
But the project was cancelled in December 2010 with ministers unsure the technology would ever work. The NAO estimates that £469m will be wasted on the project.
The NAO found that the scheme was “flawed from the outset”, largely because local fire and rescue officers did not want regional centres or major changes in the way they worked. Introducing any large new system is difficult but with enthusiastic support serious problems can sometimes be overcome; but introducing a complex new system without support from those who would use it means staff will have little incentive to find ways around problems.
The NPfIT [National Programme for IT in the NHS] failed in part because it lacked support among GPs and NHS staff; and the complexity of introducing standardised technology in semi-autonomous hospitals – each one with different ways of working – was underestimated. It was the same with Firecontrol.
The complexity of introducing standardised systems in regional centres with no goodwill among staff – was underestimated. From the start many local fire and rescue officers criticised the lack of clarity on how a regional approach would increase efficiency. “Early on, the Department’s inconsistent messages about the regionalisation of the Fire and Rescue Service led to mistrust and some antagonism,” said the NAO.
The technology project was rushed while local fire crews were excluded from project discussions. “The project progressed too fast without essential checks being completed. For example Departmental and Treasury approval was given without proper scrutiny of the project’s feasibility or validation of the estimated costs and savings,” said the Public Accounts Committee. The project went ahead before the full business case was written.
A review of the project as early as April 2004 found that the scheme was already in poor condition overall and at significant risk of failing to deliver. But the “Gateway” review report was kept secret for seven years.
Is the stage set for IT disasters in government to continue? So far the Coalition has decided, like Labour, to keep secret all internal reports on the progress or otherwise of its mega projects, including Universal Credit, though the policy on secrecy may be about to change, which Campaign4Change will report on separately.