This is one of the worst cases of project failure that the Committee has seen in many years. FiReControl was an ambitious project with the objectives of improving national resilience, efficiency and technology by replacing the control room functions of 46 local Fire and Rescue Services in England with a network of nine purpose-built regional control centres using a national computer system. The project was launched in 2004, but following a series of delays and difficulties, was terminated in December 2010 with none of the original objectives achieved and a minimum of £469 million being wasted.
The project was flawed from the outset, as the Department for Communities and Local Government (the Department) attempted, without sufficient mandatory powers, to impose a single, national approach on locally accountable Fire and Rescue Services who were reluctant to change the way they operated. Yet rather than engaging with the Services to persuade them of the project's merits, the Department excluded them from decisions about the design of the regional control centres and the proposed IT solution, even though these decisions would leave local services with potential long-term costs and residual liabilities to which they had not agreed.
The Department launched the project too quickly, driven by its wider aims to ensure a better co-ordinated national response to national disasters, such as terrorist attacks, rail crashes or floods. The department also wanted to encourage and embed regional government in England.. But it acted without applying basic project approval checks and balances - taking decisions before a business case, project plan or procurement strategy had been developed and tested amongst Fire Services. The result was hugely unrealistic forecast costs and savings, naïve over-optimism on the deliverability of the IT solution and under-appreciation or mitigation of the risks. The Department demonstrated poor judgement in approving the project and failed to provide appropriate checks and challenge.
The fundamentals of project management continued to be absent as the project proceeded. So the new fire control centres were constructed and completed whilst there was considerable delay in even awarding the IT contract, let alone developing the essential IT infrastructure. Consultants made up over half the management team (costing £69 million by 2010) but were not managed. The project had convoluted governance arrangements, with a lack of clarity over roles and responsibilities. There was a high turnover of senior managers although none have been held accountable for the failure. The Committee considers this to be an extraordinary failure of leadership. Yet no individuals have been held accountable for the failure and waste associated with this project.
The Department awarded the IT contract to a company with no direct experience of supplying the emergency services and who mostly relied on sub-contractors over which the Department had no visibility or control. The contract was poorly designed, lacking early milestones which would have enabled the Department to hold the contractor accountable for project delays. Payments within the contract were scheduled too late, and created tension in an already poor relationship. This was made worse by the Department's weak contract management and its failure to ensure the contractor followed the contracted approach.
Following the cancellation of the project, the Department has earmarked £84.8 million to meet the project's original objectives, to improve resilience, efficiency and interoperability within the Fire and Rescue Service. It has invited bids for this money from each of the Fire and Rescue services. These arrangements, however, rely on the voluntary collaboration of individual services, and we are concerned that the Department could not tell us how it will ensure certainty of response in the event of a large scale incident, or whether the £84.8 million will provide value for money. Response in the event of a large scale incident is a key issue which needs to be addressed in the new National Framework later this year, and we look forward to reviewing progress on this in due course.
On the basis of a Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from the Department and representatives from the Fire and Rescue Service on the delivery and cancellation of the FiReControl project.