The Government has admitted rushing plans for a giant regional control centre for the West Midlands which fire brigades fear could become a £9 million white elephant.
Minister Shahid Malik told a Commons inquiry: “The truth is that insufficient detailed work had been done at the time with the fire and rescue community and with others to quite understand where we were going with this.”
He made the admission after fire brigades attacked ministers over chaotic plans to replace the region’s five control centres with one giant call centre for the entire West Midlands in Wolverhampton.
They also warned that the Government might be forced to scrap the delay-hit project, even though it has already cost taxpayers more than £9 million.
Mr Malik insisted he still backed the idea of regional fire centres, saying they would be more “resilient” than smaller, more local centres because they could continue to operate in the event of a major terrorist incident or natural disaster.
He said: “The Government is absolutely committed to the concept behind fire control. We can see the national resilience it will bring. We can see the wider benefit it will bring firefighters and the wider community as well.”
But he admitted the project to build new control centres had been flawed.
He said: “The truth is that this didn’t start off too well . . . when this journey set off it wasn’t really a back of the fag packet job, it was on the basis of a concept papers, and some figures that went alongside that, which was about £120 million at the time.
“The truth is that insufficient detailed work had been done at the time with the fire and rescue community and with others to quite understand where we were going with this.”
Mr Malik was speaking to the Commons Communities and Local Government Committee, after it received written submissions from West Midlands fire services attacking the creation of a new fire control centre.
The West Midlands project has cost £9.7 million so far. Other regions have also been told to create centralised fire control centres, and the total cost to the public has been £73 million.
West Midlands Fire Service urged the Government to “develop a fall back strategy for provision of control room functions . . . in case the information technology solution or other key elements of the project are not capable of being delivered on time or at all.”
And Hereford and Worcester Fire Authority said the Government had forced fire brigades to accept a “goldplated” building. It warned: “The Regional Control Centres will deliver a size and standard of building that would be considered unacceptably extravagant in most fire and rescue services and local government organisations.”
The new premises, in Wolverhampton Business Park, was completed in 2007 but fire brigades will not be ready to move in until 2012 , mainly because of delays installing technology.
In the meantime, the taxpayer is paying £1.3 million each year to rent the property.
Ministers have also admitted sharing one control centre will cost fire services an extra £900,000 each year.
Speaking to the inquiry, John Bonney, President of the Chief Fire Officers Association, said the new fire control centres were far more expensive than needed.
“Those regional control centres were completely over specified and created a level of capacity that simply wasn’t necessary. That’s because there wasn’t enough attention paid to what professional users were saying to them about what they needed.
“If you look at those centres, the level of over specification was quite staggering.”