Page last updated at 00:06 GMT, Friday, 31 October 2008

Disasters programme 'inadequate'

Catcliffe near Rotherham during the 2007 floods
The system was used to deal with the floods of summer 2007

A 330m scheme to deal with national catastrophes is still "inadequate", the Whitehall spending watchdog has said.

The New Dimensions programme for England was launched after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US to pay for vehicles and other emergency equipment.

The National Audit Office said it had been hit by delays and cost overruns and was not able to deal with all the emergencies which could arise.

Bu the government said the programme had already been used successfully.

Nuclear incidents

New Dimensions is intended to ensure the 46 fire and rescue services in England have the specialist vehicles and equipment they need to cope with an incident on a similar scale to the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.

It includes mass decontamination equipment for dealing with chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incidents, urban search and rescue equipment for building collapses, and high-volume pumps for tackling floods and large fires.

The NAO said that, while New Dimensions had been used successfully after the summer floods of 2007, it could have been overwhelmed if events in Yorkshire and the West of England had occurred at the same time rather than a month apart.

To deal with such large-scale flooding, some 76 high-volume water pumps would have been needed - more than half as many again as the 50 which were actually available.

The NAO said there was "confusion" within England's 46 fire and rescue services over who was actually authorised to deploy New Dimension equipment, while emergency planning - particularly at the regional level - was "underdeveloped".

'Two years late'

Of the 37 fire and rescue services which responded to a survey, all but one expressed concern about the arrangements for training crews to use the new equipment.

The NAO also said the procurement process meant most of the equipment had not been available until 2005 - two years later than originally planned.

Between 3m and 8m had been wasted on the acquisition of the trucks used to transport the equipment to the scene of a disaster because of "over-ordering and poor record-keeping and contracting".

In an effort to bring the programme under control, the Department for Communities and Local Government had spent 12m on consultants.

A management accountant working on the programme had managed to defraud it of almost 900,000 in a false payments scam which went undetected for nine months.

Conservative MP Edward Leigh, chairman of the Commons public accounts committee, which oversees the work of the NAO, said the report had exposed "major worries" about the programme.

He added: "This project is too important to be allowed to go awry. The consequences of this programme failing could be simply unthinkable."

A DCLG spokesman said the New Dimensions equipment had been used successfully in a number of incidents, including the 2005 Buncefield oil depot fire which would have taken weeks to extinguish if it had not been available.

He added: "As the NAO recognises, it was the first and an unusual step for the department to procure equipment centrally on behalf of the FRS (fire and rescue service), this was an achievement for the department, and the FRS has the right equipment."

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