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'It's disgraceful' - Taxpayers continue to foot £2m annual bill of failed fire control project

PUBLISHED: 05:30 24 June 2019

The empty Fire Control Centre at the Cambridge Research Park, Waterbeach.

The empty Fire Control Centre at the Cambridge Research Park, Waterbeach.

Archant

Taxpayers are still footing the multi-million pound bill of a failed fire control centre project in East Anglia, the EADT can reveal.

More than a decade after the £23 million Waterbeach building was built in Cambridgeshire, it remains empty with taxpayers still picking up the pieces of the disastrous project.

The high tech centre was built as part of a national project to centralise emergency call handling in England.

It was due to be the hub for emergency calls for the fire services in the East of England, including Suffolk and Essex. However, after completion in 2009, technical problems meant it was never possible for staff to move in.

The project was eventually scrapped by the coalition government in 2010.

The building was funded under a Private Finance Issue deal for £23m - not paid by taxpayers - but the government agreed to lease it for £2m a year for 25 years.

However, for every year the building has lay empty, the government has had to pay the lease, meaning the taxpayer has been footing the bill for 10 years at a cost of around £2million a year.

A year ago there were reports that a company was negotiating with letting agency GVA to move into the site but, a year on, the building is still empty.

A GVA spokesperson said: "The property is a bespoke building containing specialist equipment. The configuration and shape of the building also means that there is a limited market.

"However, we are in on-going negotiations with an organisation to take on an underlease for the Cambridge site."

Cameron Matthews, the Fire Brigade Union's Eastern Chair, said: "It is disgraceful that this building is costing the taxpayer so much money at a time when we need thousands more firefighters across East Anglia.

"That money could be used to fund 20 on-call fire station across the region.

"It isn't about building new ones, it is about used the infrastructure that we already have to make sure that the public, and out firefighters are safe.

"In a time when services stretched, especially the fire service its difficult to see that money going to nothing when it could be used to so many other useful causes."

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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