Money to burn
Many Conservatives thought that they had more or less killed off John Prescott's misguided and wasteful regional agenda with the defeat of plans to amalgamate police forces two years ago and the heavy defeat of proposals for a North East Assembly in a referendum held in November 2004.
However, there is one regional project that trundles quietly along - consuming huge amounts of money, massively over budget and significantly behind schedule - a project that the Labour Government cannot bear to abandon as it would involve unprecedented loss of face but for which there is next to no demonstrable evidence that it would make much or any difference were it to be aborted. A project bereft of champions, lacking political will or leadership at either local and especially national level.
That project is regional fire control centres. The Government's Fire Control project involves closing down all 46 fire service emergency control centres in England and creating a network of regional control centres. The latter were originally due to come on stream in 2006/2007 but it is unlikely that the first one will be operating for at least two years (i.e. late 2010).
The Government estimated in 2004 that the whole process would cost just £100 million with the then Fire Minister Nick Raynsford promising revenue savings of 30% for fire and rescue authorities over the then existing arrangements. However, no net savings have ever been identified and the Government has deliberately obscured the true cost of the project. For instance by discounting much of the work done in existing county control centres which will no longer be done in regional control centres (so-called "out of scope" work, amounting to millions of pounds of additional costs). The latest national business case was published yesterday six months late. Some estimates put the true cost at £700 million - but the Fire Brigades Union put the figure at as much as £1.4 billion. £55 million has been spent on consultants to June 2008, £50 million on local and national project set up costs, £190 million on IT costs and over £342 million on premises. All this before a single Regional Control Centre has opened.
The Government's other argument for this radical change is that without it, fire services will be unable to cope with a major emergency in the run up and beyond the 2012 Olympics - such as a pandemic, terrorist outrage or natural disaster. Many Chief Fire Officers are sceptical of this assertion - made without any supporting evidence.
David Johnson, the Chief Fire Officer of Essex, for one, has dismissed this argument, asserting that local fire control centres already have the technical know how to cope with these events, without need for a regional structure.
Indeed, the Pitt Review into 2007's floods completely ignored the argument for regional fire control centres.
More to the point, perfectly good facilities are being closed down in favour of this untried regional behemoth. The fire control element of the PFI-funded tri service centre at Quedgely in Gloucestershire (in the constituency of former Fire Minister Parmjit Dhanda), is to be ripped out and relocated to Taunton in Somerset, despite huge local opposition.
Many fire authorities are deeply concerned at the proposals, fearing that its lack of robust financial planning will leave them to pick up the tab for these new regional control centres when the government's guaranteed funding runs out in 2011 - and this will mean hard pressed councillors on fire authorities will be forced by legislation to cut their revenue budgets - meaning stations, appliances and firefighters' jobs. Already some fire authorities in the South West have advised the government that they will refuse to voluntarily shut down their local fire control centres and support Fire Control - forcing the Government to threaten use of reserved powers in the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 to compel them to do so.
Conservatives have consistently opposed this hugely wasteful and unnecessary programme.
The project is IT-led and the Government's track record in this area is extremely poor and furthermore risks a catastrophic outage within a common networked system. We have seen no costs savings whatsoever but massive waste, duplication and additional costs and there is no evidence that the core service to the public will be in any way improved.
It is time the Labour Government and the new Fire Minister Sadiq Khan pulled the plug on this disastrous and muddle headed legacy of John Prescott's thoroughly discredited regional ambitions.