Last month the WMTPA blogged on how the West Midlands Fire Service is spending £23million kitting out a new base for call centre staff when the council-owned i54 project in Wolverhampton is across the road and still has tumbleweed blowing through it. Well, last Friday the Birmingham Post reported how the West Midlands Fire Service HQ relocation project in Birmingham scooped the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors’ top award at a glitzy black-tie ceremony at the Botanical Gardens.
Apparently (and it’s not hard to believe) this accolade is only ever given for a notably high-value spend, with cheap properties rarely considered, and so as beaming Fire Authority board members collect their coveted award it’s important for us to remember this is taxpayers’ money that’s been lashed out to reach such impeccably high-standards.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with decent premises and decent conditions, but it seems that in the case of these Birmingham and Wolverhampton moves, the Fire Authority have decided to push the boat out and relocate, refurbish, renovate and regenerate on a massive scale, quite clearly surpassing any similar projects in the private sector.
As the RICS West Midlands Chair said in the article:
“As always, we received a very high standard of award entries, however the relocation project of the West Midlands Fire Headquarters in Birmingham was extremely impressive and a clear winner”.
And as nice as it’d be to assume the Fire Service outstripped their opponents with a clear focus on prudence and innovation, those in the know would consider this a pretty naïve view. Big prize = big spend.
Signing-off on such big spends we have our trusty West Midlands Fire Authority, and yet, if last week’s news is anything to go by, a position on the board of this organisation is less about responsibility and more about the generous yearly salary that goes with it. A salary that Council Leader Mike Whitby appears to use as a stick to beat or a bung to bribe in the tricky business of keeping his unruly court in order.
Councillor Peter Howard, who was suspected of fuelling if not leading the recent revolt against Whitby, has been stripped of his £28,000 per year Fire Authority position as punishment and it has subsequently been handed to Councillor John Alden, a back bench critic. The implication is that this new ‘nice little earner’ might keep Councillor John Alden ‘sweet’ and is a suitable thanks for his support in averting Whitby’s dethronement.
But hang on – this, once again, is taxpayers money! It isn’t supposed to be a bonus or a treat, it’s supposed to be payment for a job (and supposedly a job that justifies such a salary!). The use of it here as a political tool is staggering.
And of course the question is, if the lure of such a job is the generous taxpayer-funded salary and little else, what does a member really care about the level of public spending to start with? Now, I’m not suggesting that Councillor John Alden, new Chairman at the Fire Authority, will turn a blind-eye to extortionate building costs and simply enjoy the nice extra income he’ll be getting, but it does appear that his predecessors have allowed fairly extravagant spending on large-scale projects to become a feature of their unelected rule. So as taxpayers pick-up the bill perhaps we, the unconsulted public, can rely upon this new Authority member to assess whether or not it’s appropriate to spend so much on these multi-million, award-winning, nothing-comparable-in-the-private-sector builds during a recession that's putting companies out of business and parents out of jobs.