Could an end be in sight for Cambridgeshire's £35million 'white elephant'- the failed regional control fire centre at Waterbeach?
PUBLISHED: 15:52 04 March 2016 | UPDATED: 15:52 04 March 2016
An end is in sight today to the sorry saga of Cambridgeshire's failed regional control fire centre - which has cost the taxpayer almost £35million without ever taking a single 999 call.
Agents have confirmed talks are now under way with a potential tenant for the building at Waterbeach, near Ely.
“It’s under offer to a private sector operator,” said a spokesman for agents LVA, who are marketing the complex. “The deal isn’t done until it’s done but it’s in solicitors’ hand
Until a deal goes through, figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the building, which has stood empty since being completed in 2009, is costing almost £2m a year - or £5,000 a day - in rent and other charges.
The revelation comes as fire stations and appliances across the region have been under threat from council cash cuts.
Firefighters’ leaders said the project had been a failure from start to finish.
Norfolk County Council considered closing fire stations at Heacham and West Walton near Wisbech and reducing cover elsewhere to make £2.36m in savings. Councillors agreed to raise council tax for the first time in five years to cover the shortfall and protect the front line instead, after 12,000 signed a petition backing our campaign against the cuts.
Norfolk Fire Brigades Union rep Sharon Thorndyke, who campaigned against the centre after it was first announced, said: “I feel very bitter that millions of pounds was ploughed into the project leaving many existing controls short staffed and under funded when the money wasted would have seen all the control rooms upgraded and ready to face the many new challenges that are now facing us.”
Suffolk FBU secretary Roy Humphreys said: “Suffolk Fire Rescue Service is proposing cuts of £1.3m, the vast majority being taken from the frontline of the service, with losses of a station closure at Wrentham, removal of 50pc of the fire cover in Ipswich, removal of fire engines from Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft South and the downgrading of an engine in Sudbury.
“All of these cuts would be unnecessary if the money wasted on this building were invested back into the fire and rescue service regionally.”
Cambridgeshire FBU secretary Cameron Matthews said: “Cambridgeshire firefighters are facing the prospect of £2.82m worth of year on year budget cuts from government. “So hearing that the failed Regional Control rooms are still standing empty at a cost of £1.8m a year is a smack in the face for our frontline workers and taxpayers given what both have already suffered under this government’s austerity.”
A government source said: “After five years the country is still paying the price for Labour’s wasteful spending and poor management.”
In 2004, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott announced plans to replace 42 county fire control rooms with regional centres which would handle 999 calls.
The centre on the Cambridge Research Park, near Ely, was one of nine built around the country by the then Labour government, between 2007 and 2010.
It was intended to serve the six counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Essex and Bedfordshire.
In 2009, the complex was completed, at a cost of £23m. But it was never used because of problems with its computer system.
In December 2010, the newly-elected Coalition government pulled the plug on the project.
Since then, the Cambridgeshire centre has stood empty.
Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act show it has cost almost £12m in rent and other charges since it were built.
The money must be paid by the government because there is no ‘break clause’ in its PFI (Private Finance Initiative) contract.
Costs for 2015/16:
Service Charge: £21,585