March 8 2014 Latest news:
Monday, December 16, 2013
It has sat empty for almost four years and has so far eaten up more than £30 million – yet there is still no use in sight for East Anglia’s biggest white elephant.
The regional fire control centre at Waterbeach, between Cambridge and Ely, was one of nine set up across the country by the previous Labour government.
The project started in 2004 and the centres were built as a Private Finance Initiative scheme – all were completed between 2007 and 2010.
However problems with technology meant that none were ever commissioned.
The new government eventually cancelled the project in 2010 – and the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said the scheme had cost at least £483 million.
The East of England centre at Waterbeach cost an estimated £23 million to build – private capital that is being paid back by the government in rent.
At the time, the government agreed to pay the rent and the costs of the centre for decades – and there was no break clause written into the contract.
However, the IT systems failed to work and after three years of trying to fix them, the new government in 2010 decided to cut its losses and abandoned the project.
That meant the government has been paying £166,000 a month (£2 million a year) in rent and maintenance for a building that has never been used and is still on the market nearly four years after it was completed.
This means that the total cost so far stands at about £30 million – and rising.
Four of the nine control centres have now been transferred to other users and negotiations are under way for the transfer of another three.
The Waterbeach centre and that at Castle Donington, serving the East Midlands, are the only two that are still on the market – and the Department for Communities and Local Government says it has had some interest in them.
With £2 million a year being spent on it, the Waterbeach centre has so far cost taxpayers nearly £8 million – but fire minister Brandon Lewis – who represents the Norfolk constituency of Great Yarmouth – said this figure is coming down.
He said: “The last Government’s botched Fire Control programme was a disaster from start to finish. We have cancelled the flawed project to save taxpayers’ money.
“However, the last Government failed to provide break clauses in the leases. We are thus stuck with these buildings until we can find someone willing to rent them and take on the costs.
“This is clearly unsatisfactory, but this Government has taken firm action to protect the public purse and minimise the liabilities we have inherited.”
Ironically Suffolk’s own fire control room closed two years ago and it now shares a fire control with Cambridgeshire – however this is in the existing fire control, not the new centre which is too large and unsuitable for such an operation.
Ipswich MP Ben Gummer said the problems with the control centre showed: “Everything that was wrong with the way the last government bought in services.”
He said: “They really gave outsourcing services a bad name. The way that government contracts are drawn up now is very different and we would not get into this kind of situation.
“The National Audit Office has looked at the way the government deals with the private sector and has said it has a much better grip on those contracts.”
Suffolk County Council spokesman for public protection Colin Spence said the control centre was too big for any individual fire authority – or even for a merged service like that between Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.
He said: “I have been there for a meeting, but it is far too large for any purpose we might be able to put it to.
“If we had put the merged control centre with Cambridgeshire in there, they would be rattling around. It’s huge and it’s difficult to see what use it could be put to.”