No end in sight for East Anglia’s £50m bill for fire control white elephant

The moth balled fire control centre in Waterbeach near Cambridge. Picture: ARCHANT

The moth balled fire control centre in Waterbeach near Cambridge. Picture: ARCHANT - Credit: Archant

The government has still not agreed a deal to end its £50m commitment for the regional fire control “white elephant” in Cambridgeshire – nearly two years after negotiations started.

That means it could be marking the 10th anniversary of paying rent for building it has never used – and spent eight years trying to offload.

The government has now admitted the talks are continuing with no indication of when they might be concluded – meaning the building remains empty.

The regional fire control centre was one of nine centres across the country built for the previous Labour government in the early years of the century. It was built under a Private Finance Issue deal for £23m – not paid by taxpayers – but the government agreed to lease the building for £2m a year for 25 years. That is an overall commitment of £50m.

The lease began in October 2008, however technical problems meant it was never possible for fire control staff to move in. The project was eventually scrapped by the coalition government in 2010.

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Recently there were reports that a data company was negotiating to move into the site – but a spokeswoman for the Department of Communities and Local Government said no deal had yet be concluded.

She said: “We remain in commercial negotiations about sub-letting the property.”

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That would mean the government would continue to responsible for paying the rent of £2m a year until 2033 – there was no break clause inserted into the original deal – and keep what was paid by the potential tenant.

The spokeswoman was unable to say what kind of deal the government would be looking for – but by October this year it will have already paid £20m and be liable for a further £30m over the next 15 years.

Ipswich Labour MP Sandy Martin said the control room saga didn’t reflect well on any of the politicians involved.

He said: “This has been one of the most inexplicable wastes of money anyone has ever seen.

“But those politicians who came to power in 2010 complaining of the original decision have had all this time to try to sort out a solution and have failed to do that – it would make more sense to have someone employed to just sort out this mess if you could end up saving this huge amount of annual rent.”

Control room legacy stretches back to March 2004

The FiREControl project was launched by then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott in March 2004 to reduce the number of control centres across the country from 46 to nine regional centres.

The East of England Centre was built at Waterbeach, between Cambridge and Ely, and was designed to handle all fire emergency calls from Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, and Bedfordshire.

The centres were completed between 2008 and 2010, all built by private finance and rented back to the government.

However fire services used different communications technologies, and it proved impossible to standardise them. Despite years of searching for a solution, the project was abandoned by the coalition government in 2010.

The National Audit Office said in 2011 that the failed project had cost £469m – the cost will have gone up since then – and several remain unoccupied.

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