A scathing report by the Public Accounts Committee has cast doubt over the ability of local government to turn around the FireControl project three years after its cancellation due to a lack of IT procurement skills.
Speaking as select committee chair, Margaret Hodge labelled the original project “one of the worst cases of project failure" MPs have ever seen, resulting in £482 million of taxpayers’ money being wasted.
Plans were originally made in 2004 to control 46 fire services in nine regional controls rooms, which involved procuring new premises and building a centralised IT system. By the time the project was scrapped in 2010, no IT system was delivered, with new regional control centres remaining empty as costly 'white elephants'.
The intention of new proposals following the cancellation was to abandon the centralised IT of the FireControl programme run by one supplier, EADS, in favour of a number of cheaper, localised projects building on existing IT systems. These contracts would be open to a number of IT contractors as part of a further £82 million investment aimed at rescuing the project.
However the report reveals that the new programme is already three months behind schedule, and projected savings of £126 million have fallen by £2 million. Seven of the 22 proposed projects are now overdue and two are running at least 12 months behind.
Hodge said she was “sceptical” that attempts to the project aims will be achieved as the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLS) adopts a localised approach, in part due to a lack of procurement skills among regional teams.
“Relying on multiple local projects risks value for money," she said. "We are not confident that local teams have the right IT and procurement skills to get good deals from suppliers and to monitor contracts effectively."
Hodge continued: “There is a risk that the DCLG has swung from an overly prescriptive national approach to one that does not provide enough national oversight and coordination and fails to meet national needs or achieve economies of scale.”
The report also highlights failings by DCLG in providing procurement frameworks for the regional teams in order to help them deal with numerous suppliers and sub-contractors.
The report reads: “We have repeatedly seen failures in project management and are concerned that the skills needed for IT procurement may not be present within the individual fire and rescue authorities, some of which have small management teams.”
Furthermore, the reports shows that of the £82 million earmarked for new services, a proportion has been used by some of the local authorities to 'buy in procurement expertise'.
In order to avert more problems, one of the recommendations made as part of the report suggests that DCLG needs to ensure that the new project is able to deliver value for money by “scrutinising local fire and rescue authorities more closely and, where necessary, challenging them more robustly”.
Hodge concluded “Devolving decision-making and delivery to local bodies does not remove the duty on the Department to account for value for money.
“It needs to ensure that national objectives, such as the collaboration needed between fire authorities to deal with national disasters and challenges, are achieved.”