Ministers drop new fire HQs in £230m scandal

MINISTERs have cancelled a controversial project to set up regional fire control centres that would have seen Yorkshire's four services operate from a single building – despite the botched scheme having already cost taxpayers £230m.

The coalition Government has finally pulled the plug on Labour's FireControl project to trim England's existing 46 local control rooms into nine centres after a series of delays and cost increases.

The scheme has become an embarrassment for Ministers and left Yorkshire's new centre in Wakefield – complete with 6,000 coffee machine – sitting empty for two years while costing taxpayers 5,000 a day in rent.

Despite the amount already spent on the project Fire Minister Bob Neill pulled the plug when contractors Cassidian could not promise it would be delivered on time and to budget after a final attempt to get it back on track.

Each of the region's four services – West Yorkshire, North Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and Humberside – will now continue using their own control centres while discussions take place over what to do with the Wakefield building where they were due to move in 2012.

Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack said: "I welcome this decision – it's long overdue. For seven years the FBU has been sounding the alarm about this project, often as a lone voice, and this decision shows that we were right."

Clive Betts, Sheffield South East MP and chairman of the Local Government select committee, said: "This decision can come as no surprise. In the last Parliament our predecessor committee published a report about the FireControl project that criticised both department and the contractor for their handling of this much delayed initiative that has gone massively over budget."

The decision to pull the plug comes as fire services have to cope with cuts in Government funding of up to 10 per cent next year, with South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue announcing yesterday that it would axe six station managers and two areas managers as it cuts 800,000 from management costs.

Regional control rooms were intended to improve the country's ability to respond to terrorism, major industrial accidents and natural disasters such as flooding, but the project has been beset by problems over more than five years, with costs more than tripling from 120m to 423m. Labour MP John McDonnell claimed yesterday as much as 1.3bn may have been wasted in costs and lost staff morale.

A select committee report in the spring was scathing but concluded it should go ahead because so much money had already been spent on it. Coalition Ministers have slammed the performance of Cassidian – formerly EADS – not least when Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles claimed the satellite navigation system was so flawed it was unable to direct fire engines to swathes of Yorkshire.

Mr Neill said ending the contract was "the best outcome" for taxpayers and fire services, although the Government will not reveal how much Cassidian is receiving after agreeing an "acceptable" settlement. "Over the next few weeks we intend to identify the extent to which any legacy assets from the project, including the control centre buildings, can be used for the benefit of the fire and rescue service and local communities in future," he said.

West Yorkshire officials said they would consider a "series of mobilising options" including talking to other emergency services, while South Yorkshire said it had "one of the most modern, technologically-advanced 999 control rooms in the country". Humberside officials said they were "confident in our control and communication capability".