Desertcreat: Training college plan dealt fresh blow after fire officers said they would not feel safe being there alongside police
The future of Northern Ireland's first emergency services training centre has been thrown into even further doubt after fire officers said they would not feel safe being there alongside the police.
For the first time since the multi-million pound Police and Fire Training College at Desertcreat was proposed a decade ago, all three unions representing the officers who would train there have raised deep concerns about the plans – and questions over its viability.
In the case of the Fire Brigades Union, which represents rank-and-file firefighters, it believes its members would be at an increased security threat if they trained at Desertcreat alongside PSNI officers.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, senior Fire Brigades Union representative Jim Barbour said: “Concerns are being raised at every meeting we have in relation to usage and security. The site is huge and we have no confidence in reassurances given by the PSNI regarding security of the site and that of our members.
“Attacks on the Fire Service continue to increase on deployment, and we believe if trained with the PSNI that could lead to an increased security threat to our members.”
Mr Barbour said his union had “lost all confidence in the project in the short or medium-term”.
He also raised concerns about the college’s viability given the delays it has faced since it was first proposed in 2004, along with budget problems. “The business case for Desertcreat is now some years old and we are in times of austerity with no recruitment to the Fire Service taking place,” he added.
“We have informed Fire Service management of our loss of confidence in the project and they have let that be known to the relevant parties. It will be a financial millstone, we have looked at the capital project and just could not sustain the necessary usage.”
The aim of the Desertcreat project, near Cookstown, Co Tyrone, is to provide a training college where police, fire and prison officers would work together.
However, Prison Officers’ Association spokesman Finlay Spratt also voiced concerns about security at the large site.
“We were never in favour of it,” he said. “I said from day one it was a white elephant, a complete waste of time and public money. It was a political decision, and situated in the wrong place.
“The Prison Service insisted on going with it but it should have been in the greater Belfast area or the old base at Ballykelly (in Co Londonderry). Security was always going to be an issue with it as far as we were concerned.”
A spokesman for the Police Federation, which represents 6,600 PSNI officers, said it understood worries about the dissident republican threat.
“We have our own concerns and fully understand the position of the FBU,” he said.
“It was always our position that we needed a new, fit-for-purpose police training centre. However, the Police Federation for Northern Ireland has consistently questioned the viability of the project, the size and location of the proposed facility and the exorbitant cost of construction.”
Temporary Deputy Chief Constable Alistair Finlay is the chairman of the Northern Ireland Community Safety College Programme Board, which is overseeing the Desertcreat project.
He said: “Delivery of the college is a commitment included in the Executive's Programme for Government and the programme board is working to deliver on this commitment.
“The three services (fire, police and prison) are full participants on the programme board and will continue to ensure the best interests of all staff are fully considered.”
Stalled project has already cost £12m
Plans to build a new police training college at Desertcreat in Co Tyrone were announced in 2004 — but have been mired in controversy ever since.
It was originally predicted to be finished by 2008 at a cost of £80m.
But deadline after deadline has been missed, and the estimate cost has now soared to almost double that — £157 million.
The Northern Ireland Community Safety College project was created to provide training facilities for the PSNI, the Fire and Rescue Service, and Prison Service on one purpose-built 250-acre site.
There were even issues about where it should be built, with some concerned about dissisident republic threat in the area.
Taxpayers have already paid over £12m for the project, even though no building work has commenced. In May 2006, doubt was cast over the amount of money the Government would provide when Policing Board member William Hay warned it was offering £40m less than the total cost.
Hopes rose for the project in 2011 when Stormont’s department of finance approved a £139 million spend.
A shortlist of potential contractors was published and discussions began with the preferred bidder FGP Consortium — made up of Spanish company FCC and local firm Gilbert Ash.
But in March 2014 the contractors were reported to have pulled out of the project.
One month later it was revealed that the team overseeing the project had decided that FGP would be unable to build the college within the budget set by the Assembly.
Most recently, in June, members of the Policing Board warned the Executive the plans were no longer financially feasible.