Anger as failed land deal between county’s police and fire services could cost taxpayers £1m
More than £1 million of taxpayers’ money could be wasted as a land deal between Cambridgeshire’s fire and police services looks set to fall through.
The county’s Fire Authority heard on Thursday that it has “effectively wasted” the money as the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner indicated it will rescind an offer of providing land for a training facility.
The chairman of the Fire Authority said the organisation had been “misled”, another councillor labelling the situation a “deplorable waste of public money,” while another said “we have been totally led down the garden path”.
The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Fire Authority was planning to buy a piece of land known as St John’s in Huntingdon in 2016, near Percy Road, before the then police and crime commissioner (PCC) Jason Ablewhite offered an alternative site in Monks Wood.
The police own the Monks Wood site but, when it was considered surplus to requirements, the fire service said it was offered the land for a much-needed new training facility.
So the fire service shelved plans to buy the St John’s site and started on a planning application for the other, now preferred, Monks Wood location.
But at Thursday’s meeting the chairman of the Fire Authority, Conservative Cllr Kevin Reynolds, told his fellow members: “The opportunity for collaboration with the police at Monks Wood looks like it has fallen through.
“We have been formally advised by the interim PCC Ray Bisby that the land offered at Monks Wood is most likely needed for police purposes. You can read into that what you will, but we are taking that as it is going to be used for police purposes.”
The information was said to be conveyed in a letter from Mr Bisby.
No final decision has been taken by the interim commissioner, but the realisation that the land cannot be given to the fire service appears to have come about under his predecessor.
Mr Ablewhite resigned from his position in November last year following a complaint made to the Independent Office for Police Conduct. It is alleged Mr Ablewhite sent unsolicited explicit photos to a woman he met while carrying out his duties.
Although Cllr Reynolds said the interim police commissioner suggested there is “a very small possibility Monks Wood might still be on offer,” he added it was “unfortunate” greater clarity could not be provided.
Liberal Democrat county councillor, and member of the Fire Authority, Cllr Sebastian Kindersley, asked how much money has been “effectively thrown away by the decision of the police and crime commissioner” on the Monks Wood plan.
Treasurer for the Fire Authority, Matthew Warren, said it had cost “in excess of £100,000” getting planning consent for Monks Wood – “and that doesn’t include officer time,” he added. He also pointed out that does not include the money spent on previous work for the St John’s site, which was shelved when the police first offered the Monks Wood site.
The chief fire officer, Chris Strickland, said the price of the land may also have increased. He added: “The other factor which is significant is the increase in building costs.”
“We anticipate that if we were to build the same building now as we were going to build then (prior to the offer of the Monks Wood site) there is around £900,000 more.
“The money we have in our capital pot isn’t increasing at the same rate.”
He added: “There has been a differential that has been increasing over the last three years.
“It’s important we do move ahead with this before it gets to a stage where it becomes unaffordable.”
The fire service has also been incurring additional costs because it is using a training facility in Northamptonshire.
Cllr Reynolds said: “If I am being brutally honest we have been misled over Monks Wood, there’s no doubt about that in my view. It’s not going to be available for us I don’t think.”
Cllr Kindersley said he wanted it on record “what a deplorable, deplorable waste of public money it has been”.
“I very much hope the next police and crime commissioner takes a very much better attitude to the collaborative working that they are required to do by law, incidentally, and that they take a much more positive attitude to some form of reimbursement to the Fire Authority so that the taxpayers of the county are not left short,” he added.
“I think every member of this authority would agree with your comments there,” replied Cllr Reynolds.
Cllr Reynolds said the situation means “we are in exactly the same place as we were four years ago”.
He added: “Now we’re four years behind, to the detriment of the training of our staff, and what we were told would happen didn’t happen.”
Conservative Ian Gardener said: “I think it’s an absolute disgrace that we have been put in this situation and our firefighters have not had the correct training facility in this county when it could have all been sorted out four years ago. We have been totally led down the garden path by the PCC, and I think it’s an appalling situation to be in.”
A spokesperson for the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner said: “There has been an ongoing dialogue between the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner and the Fire Authority about the use of police land at Monks Wood.
“The previous police and crime commissioner, Jason Ablewhite, alerted the Fire Authority to pressures on the police estate in 2018.
“The constabulary need to relocate some training facilities so it was hoped the needs of both services could be accommodated.
“Unfortunately, shared use in these circumstances doesn’t seem operationally possible at this time with the space available.
“No final decision has been made, however, as it is likely that the constabulary will need the land to meet their training needs. The acting commissioner notified the Fire Authority of this to assist them with their plans.”
The Fire Authority heard that despite the additional cost and inconvenience to staff, Cambridgeshire firefighters are all still trained to the required standard.
The decision on committing to a location was expected to be taken at the meeting, but the delay means the Fire Authority will meet again on March 30 for a special session.
Speaking after the meeting, chief fire officer Chris Strickland said: “I’m very pleased actually there has been some movement from the interim police and crime commissioner who has said to us that the site we were hoping to have at Monks Wood, whilst that is not available, if it does become available over the next few months then we will be able to have first refusal on the land.
“That’s encouraging. It’s obviously disappointing we have not been able to secure the land because we have spent a considerable amount of money and invested about three years to develop proposals in conjunction with the police.
“But we recognise their operational requirements have taken precedence. We are looking at a backstop – an alternative site – at another location in Huntingdon.
“And by around the end of March we will know which way we need to move forward. But the imperative for me as the chief fire officer is to make sure that my staff have up-to-date, bespoke training facilities, so that I can provide a competent workforce who can go out there and deliver the best service to the community.”
He said he is “anticipating by the end of March we will be able to have a very clear direction for the organisation”.
A spokesman for the Fire Authority said the St John’s site is just one option available that could be explored if the Monks Wood site is not available.
Ben Hatton, Local Democracy Reporting Service