Bad buying led to 'comprehensive failure' of fire control project

1 July 2011

2 July 2011 | Adam Leach

Poor procurement and contracting contributed to the waste of at least £469 million when the government tried to replace England’s Fire and Rescue Service control rooms.  

Described as a “comprehensive failure” in a National Audit Office (NAO) report, the FiReControl project to replace England’s 46 control rooms with nine regional control centres, was scrapped after seven years after numerous delays and cost overruns.

“The [Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG)] rushed the start of the project, failing to follow proper procedures,” the report said. “Ineffective checks and balances during initiation and early stages meant the department committed itself to the project on the basis of broad-brush and inaccurate estimates of costs and benefits and an unrealistic delivery timetable, and agreed an inadequate contract with its IT supplier.”

The NAO criticised the department’s failure to take overall responsibility for developing the IT system. This should not have been devolved to contractors without holding them to account or installing breach of contract clauses.

The project’s original estimated cost in 2004 was £120 million. This would have produced a net saving of £86 million, but was described as “completely unrealistic”. The forecast total cost of the project when cancelled was £635 million.

The nine new centres, which had been built to specifically accommodate the IT technology, have been left empty since the cancellation. The decision to prioritise the procurement of the centres over the IT system meant the first centres were completed just three months after the IT contract had been awarded. A further £3.2 million has been spent on shutting down the project.

The department agreed leases of between 20 and 25 years for each of the regional control centres and, should fire services or other bodies fail to move in, DCLG will continue to be responsible for rent, utilities and facilities management costs for each building over the lifetime of their lease.

The NAO has called for future projects to “clearly define accountabilities, responsibilities and requirements” before awarding any contracts to suppliers and to retain ownership of the critical risks to success of projects.

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