Regional Fire Control needs to be exposed as one of the biggest acts of hypocrisy in modern politics, says Tam McFarlane
For a government that takes great pleasure in cutting public services in the name of ‘efficiency savings’, the ongoing fiasco of empty Regional Fire Control Centres is surely one of the biggest acts of political hypocrisy in modern times.
The shambolic Regional Fire Control project began in 2004 under New Labour, aiming to close every local emergency fire control in the country and replace them with nine purpose built regional centres. The plan was heavily criticised by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) who warned that its benefits were unproven and that the project was doomed to failure. History bore out the FBU’s dire prediction.
The project was cancelled by the Tory led coalition government six years later, without any detailed plan of how to stop or reclaim costs that included failed I.T. systems and ongoing maintenance costs. Its cancellation did not bring an end to the massive financial burden that was forced upon unsuspecting UK taxpayers, nor the political incompetence that shadowed the project from day one.
Early on in the project - in an act of gross irresponsibility - government ministers sanctioned the building of nine buildings to serve as Regional Fire Control Centres, despite concerns from fire and rescue services about the feasibility of centralising the work of control. At this point, there were no guarantees of even having a workable IT system that would ensure emergency calls could be effectively handled.
Crucially, the government commissioned these buildings using the enormously expensive ‘Private Finance Initiative’ which, according to the Guardian, committed more than half a billion pounds of taxpayers money to a project that was doomed to failure.
Fast forward to 2017, and the enormous scale of the waste is there for all to see. After more than 10 years, four of the nine buildings remain empty and unused at fantastic cost to the public purse. This includes the unoccupied building in Taunton, intended as the South West ‘Regional Control’, which, according to a FoI request by the BBC has now cost more than £16m in charges. An astonishing figure which is almost double the £8.9m it cost to build in the first place.
This scandalous waste of taxpayers’ money continues, while the government does nothing to remedy the situation. They seem instead to be content to pour public money into private sector hands whilst, at the same time, making savage cuts to frontline fire services.
The anger over Regional Fire Control is still keenly felt by firefighters at Taunton fire station, where I used to be based. Taunton, which was a two pump wholetime station, used to be the largest fire station in Somerset and provided immediate response in the area and strategic support using specialist appliances across the entire county. However, all of this changed in 2013 when, as a direct result of central government budget cuts, wholetime cover was cut in half and the immediate response of the second appliance was removed as part of a massive package of dangerous cuts across the local brigade.
The vacant Regional Control Centre building is located not far from Taunton fire station. Every day as firefighters make their way to work, they are forced to pass a useless empty shell of a building that the government continues to pour millions of pounds into. All of this while frontline firefighter posts are being axed, life-saving equipment is being reduced, and firefighters have been robbed of their pensions. It is now time for politicians to get off their backsides and deliver. Anything less is shameful.