More money down the drain

WHEN severe cuts to Government spending threaten to leave hundreds of thousands of public sector workers out of a job, it is galling to consider how vast sums of taxpayers' money are, invariably, poured down the drain.

In recent weeks, the Ministry of Defence has been in the spotlight for its failure to keep control of costly schemes that spiralled several times above their initial costs.

However the botched project to set up a network of regional fire control centres – launched under Labour by the Department of Communities and Local Government – is a serious contender when it comes to identifying the most extreme example of unnecessary profligacy on Whitehall's part.

The cost spiralled from 120m to 420m. The project suffered repeated delays and lost the confidence of unions, management and, ultimately, Ministers. As if to rub our noses in it, a completed control centre in Wakefield – which was designed to replace the four centres currently used by the region's fire services – is costing taxpayers 5,000 a day, even though the premises are empty.

The decision by Ministers to say enough is enough and cancel the contract will be widely welcomed. Despite the frustration and anger that 230m has already been spent on this folly, it would have been wrong to continue pouring money into a project which MPs had warned from the start contained "considerable risks".

Now lessons must be learnt from this sorry episode – something that rarely seems to happen from the plethora of Government projects which go wrong – to ensure future initiatives are delivered on time, on budget and to the specification agreed.

Given the Wakefield building is already complete, some use must be found for the building, even if this involves leasing out the premises to a series of start-up companies at a discounted rate. But the public also deserves to know how much Cassidian – the company responsible for the project – has been paid to cancel the contract. It is bad enough for taxpayers to have seen so much money frittered away on the work already carried out without learning, at a subsequent date, that a handsome reward has been paid for this spectacular failure.