Plans approved to merge Aylesbury’s fire control room with Reading – not a site in Cambridgeshire

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Plans to merge the Aylesbury-based fire control room with a site in Cambridgeshire have been scrapped in favour of moving it to Reading instead.

The plan to merge the control room with Suffolk and Cambridgeshire was expected to save Bucks £482,000 a year, but merging with Oxfordshire and Berkshire could save up to £781,000 a year.

A report looking into the two options found that there was no certainty over when the Cambridgeshire site would open or the costs and savings it would accrue. The centre was expected to open in April next year but the report claims the target ‘will not be met’.

In contrast it concluded that plans for a Thames Valley-wide call centre had a ‘reassuring level of certainty’.

Under the plans the Thames Valley control centre would be based at Calcot, near Reading, and open in April 2014.

A fallback or ‘buddy’ control room would be based in Kidlington, Oxfordshire, which could be used if there was a technical problem with the first control room or to help out with unexpectedly high call levels.

It is usual for fire services across the country to have a back up arrangement in case of emergency.

A total of 35 staff would be required to work in the new control centre, which could mean 26 workers from the three Thames Valley-based fire services needing to be redeployed or made redundant.

It is unclear how much has been spent to date on the planned merger with Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. Government funding of £1.8 million means Buckinghamshire And Milton Keynes Fire Authority will not have to draw on financial reserves to deliver the new project.

Following today’s vote by the Bucks Fire Authority, Aylesbury Vale District Councillor Robin Stucthbury said: “The money they spent doing this could have been better invested doing the first option and it may have given more certainty of employment to the staff going forward.

“This option should have been the obvious one, like it was with the police (which is Thames Valley wide and has a single call centre).

“I’m pleased they have gone with this option, but I’m concerned now much money was spent to investigate going with Cambridge.”

Southcourt district councillor Michael Beall said: “They have wasted a year, when they could have investigated this option in the first place.”

Bucks Fire vice-chairman and control room project spokesman Councillor Andy Dransfield said: “It became apparent that the date of the proposed changeover to Cambridgeshire, who were already involved in an innovative and complex integration with Suffolk, was slipping from April 2013 towards 2014 for a number of valid reasons.

“Coupled with the fact that we could not agree on cost-sharing and governance arrangements, we tasked our chief fire officer with seeking other possible ways of securing a long-term deal which would best serve the people of Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes.”

Executive Committee vice-chairman councillor Adrian Busby said: “Although the go-live date will now be April 2014, we are more confident of that date being achieved. The cost apportionment model being used for the partnership is clear and fair and will serve the taxpayers of all three areas well.

“There has for many years been a high level of collaborative working between the three Thames Valley fire services, and this new partnership is the product of that natural synergy.

“The proposed financial deal with the Thames Valley partnership allows all three organisations to improve services and make significant savings, and that has to be a good thing.”

Chief fire officer Mark Jones said: “When Buckinghamshire And Milton Keynes Fire Authority chose its preferred provider last year, there were few known facts about the potential for a Thames Valley collaboration.

“Last year, the Cambridgeshire alliance was favoured over Royal Berkshire and Oxfordshire on the basis that the costs, capability and timeframe of the Thames Valley venture were not known at that time. Since then this programme has matured and it has now become a more favourable option.

“It is a credit to Oxfordshire County Council and Royal Berkshire Fire Authority that they have moved in 12 months to a position of having secured a building and a working agreement for the long term. I am delighted that Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes will be joining that partnership and I look forward to working with our neighbours.

“Thankfully, there has been minimal wasted effort and cost because most of the work done so far was required in any case. However, we were approaching the point at which costs might have been incurred which were not redeemable.

“For our staff, the date has moved but little else changes, and I know they will continue to deliver good services to those in need. For the public, as with any such change, it is our intention that they will notice no difference other than reduced costs and a modernised system for handling calls for help.”

Councillor David Rowlands, chairman of the Fire Authority, said: “The deal we want to secure will serve our public for many years to come.

“We tried hard to get an agreement with Cambridgeshire which would save our taxpayers’ money and deliver service improvements.

“We are grateful for the opportunity afforded by Cambridgeshire and wish them all the best for the ongoing project with Suffolk.”

Last year’s decision to outsource the control room follows the cancellation of a project to replace the 46 fire service control rooms in England with nine regional centres, which was launched in 2003 by the previous government.

Buckinghamshire Fire & Rescue Service and the other eight fire and rescue services in the South East were due to share a control room in Fareham, Hampshire, from this year.