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House of Commons Hansard
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Emergency Services and New Estates
27 March 2018
Volume 638

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the response of emergency services to calls from newly built estates.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful for the opportunity to bring this issue to hon. Members’ attention. In August 2017, my constituent Charlotte told me about a heartbreaking incident that claimed the life of her partner and changed her life dramatically. My constituent and I want the debate to be the beginning of a meaningful conversation, and to press for change in the way that emergency services and local authorities communicate when a house becomes occupied on a new housing estate.

On average, it should take the emergency services seven minutes to be on the scene of a critical incident, or a maximum of 15 minutes. In my constituent’s case, it took over half an hour. Neither the operator nor the paramedics were at fault. Instead, we found a significant problem with the GPS system on which our first responders rely.

We all have new developments springing up in our constituencies.

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I thank my hon. Friend for securing the important debate. I had a similar incident in my constituency in Kirkby on a new housing estate, where the ambulance took 30 minutes to arrive. Thankfully, that did not result in my constituent’s death, but we are talking about life and death situations. There must be a practical way of solving the problem.

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I agree, and I am grateful to see my hon. Friend and other hon. Members present. I regret not asking for more time, because conversations that I have had with hon. Members in the lead-up to the debate have indicated that there is substantially more interest in the problem than I had realised.

Like many young couples, Andy and Charlotte had recently moved into their new property. It was their first home together, in which they dreamt of starting a family. On the night of 11 February 2017, Charlotte found herself in a situation she had never thought she would encounter. Her partner Andy, a fanatical cyclist, had just completed a 50-mile bike ride—he had ridden more than 1,000 miles in the previous year. After settling down for the night, Andy became unwell, and it was later confirmed that he had suffered a cardiac arrest. Charlotte called 999, proceeded to carry out CPR on her husband and spoke to the operator.

Charlotte told the operator that the ambulance crew would need to access her estate via a particular road. Unfortunately, although a property may have a postcode, many homes on the 40,000 unadopted roads on new estates are not visible on the systems used in emergency or first responder vehicles.

As I later found out by sending freedom of information requests to all ambulance trusts, in many cases, emergency vehicle sat-navs are updated only every six to eight weeks on average. Even when updated regularly, the information used to update the sat-navs is only as up to date as that provided by Ordnance Survey. There is no standard process across ambulance trusts or other emergency services. One trust stated that it is

“aiming to update a minimum of every 6 months but sooner if practically possible”.

Thanks to Charlotte’s directions, the paramedics were in the correct area, but the ambulance ended up driving down a lane that led to a river bank with no bridge across to her estate. Charlotte could see the ambulance, but its way was blocked by a five-foot wall on one side and a six-foot fence on the other. The paramedics had no choice but to reverse back up the lane for three quarters of a mile, causing further significant delay.

Charlotte heroically gave CPR to her husband and directions to the operators. Thirty minutes after she dialled 999, paramedics finally arrived on the scene and took control. Their best efforts to resuscitate Andy tragically came too late to save his life.

I applied for the debate because in different circumstances, we would not be having this discussion. It is often the case that, through awful events, faults are identified and can be dealt with. Although nothing can bring Andy back, Charlotte would like his story to be used to stop similar incidents happening in future.

About 200,000 homes were built in 2017. Many hon. Members have such developments in their constituencies, so it is important that we get this right.

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Has my hon. Friend given any consideration to earlier action? Perhaps local authorities could better engage with health services, ambulance services and Ordnance Survey at the planning stage.

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Yes. As I will go on to explain, the problem is that there is no standardised approach, but there ought to be.

At the moment, ambulance trust mapping databases are provided under the national public sector mapping agreement. Under the terms of that agreement, Ordnance Survey releases updates free of charge every six weeks, but it is reliant on local authorities or developers submitting a request. As I mentioned earlier, emergency vehicle GPS systems are updated only every six to eight weeks on average, when they receive a routine mechanical service—though even that is not the case for all trusts. There is potential for delay at several stages of the process.

There is no consistency between local authority areas, and I have found idiosyncratic practices. In one local authority, the ambulance trust said that its way of dealing with the problem was to send its officers along to planning meetings in person so that it could be promptly informed of new developments. Surely we can find a better way of doing it than that.

If different systems operate across emergency services, we miss the opportunity to find a much more collaborative approach. I ask the Minister whether, given the technological advances at our disposal, an auto-upgrade solution is possible. Most of us have self-upgrading smartphones. With lives at risk, surely we must be able to find some kind of new solution along those lines.

The practices of local authorities and developers could be standardised to ensure that they request that Ordnance Survey carries out work when at least one property on a development is occupied, even if the development is not completed and the roads are not adopted. If the postal service and Amazon can find a property such as Charlotte and Andy’s to deliver mail, could procedures and knowledge not be shared in a joint approach?

A good example can be found in the north-west. The North West Ambulance Service Trust response to my freedom of information request stated:

“On new large developments the map is often blank…so the team add descriptive route notes to aid crews. For example, take the first left on to Flower Crescent off New Bridge Street”,

which might be an existing road. That highlights that different and better ways of developing new mapping systems could save such incidents from occurring.

In speaking on Charlotte’s behalf, I want to make it absolutely clear that what happened was in no way the fault of the paramedics or the operator. It is a flaw in the complex system that our emergency services work with. I have called the debate to make the Minister aware of the problem in the hope that he will commit to act promptly to find the best way to resolve it.

To give some additional information, we sent an FOI request to every ambulance trust. I can provide the Minister with the responses we received, so he can see the disparity for himself. London Ambulance Service said that it had recorded 17 of these occurrences during the last three years, whereby crews had encountered difficulties in locating new build properties. The Welsh Ambulance Service recorded four occurrences, but most ambulance trusts just did not record incidents at all, so we do not know how frequently they are happening.

Given the risk to our constituents and the number of new developments, and the fact that this is a completely solvable problem—it does not require additional resource, and requires only someone’s attention to look at the process and organise it—the Minister could commit to action today.

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I thank the hon. Lady for securing a very important debate and for sharing the details of the extremely regrettable tragedy endured by her constituent. After 31 years in the fire service, I understand what she is saying, and my heart goes out to the family and to those who responded, for the challenges that they face in dealing with incidents that would have affected the fire service, the police service and other emergency services. I agree with her point that if Amazon and DHL find places, we should be doing it, and doing it better.

Should that be a planning obligation somewhere in the conditions of planning consent? Prior to a purchaser occupying a house, the developer could be obliged to ensure that the emergency services are aware, so that they can respond to calls using new technology? It is so important.

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That is a very sensible suggestion. I called for this debate not to provide the Minister with the answers—I just wanted him to know what the problem was and make him understand that it has a direct impact even though it is completely solvable. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion may well be a helpful contribution and could well provide us with a sensible way forward that would help significantly.

That is all I wanted to say. I just wanted to make the Minister aware of this problem, and I look forward to hearing his reply.

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It is a pleasure to serve once again under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I commend the hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) for securing this debate. First, I extend my sympathies and, I am sure, the sympathies of all those present, to Charlotte for her loss.

The hon. Lady has used a Westminster Hall debate in the finest tradition, by raising an issue that I was not previously briefed on to the degree that I am now as a consequence. There is ongoing work on it, which I will happily update her and the rest of the House on. She has highlighted an issue that affects all of us in all our constituencies, because as the Government seek to build more housing, this issue will grow across constituencies and have greater reach. Also, as she rightly said, it applies not only to the ambulance service but to the blue-light fraternity as a whole, so I very much commend her for raising the issue.

The hon. Lady showed that she already has an in-depth knowledge of some of the challenges caused by the time lag in how systems are updated. However, I am pleased to reassure her that there is work ongoing in this area specifically. The Department of Health and Social Care is centrally procuring new control room and vehicle communications systems for NHS ambulance trusts, which will be able to update wirelessly. There are questions as to the frequency of those updates, which relates to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) made about the flow of information from the Department for Communities and Local Government, the planning system and the Ordnance Survey. The ongoing work in the Department is looking at how the central procurement of information into control rooms can ensure that there is a better supply of data about new housing of the sort that the hon. Member for Darlington referred to.

Although the effective deployment and maintenance of GPS systems is, as I am sure the hon. Lady recognises, an operational matter, they are centrally funded systems. As she said, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy sponsors the Ordnance Survey, which owns the public sector mapping agreement. That is a 10-year agreement entered into in 2011, which provides the geographical datasets that are used centrally. That information includes data to advise emergency services of the best locations in which to position their vehicles at any given time of the day, based on historic patterns of where they are most likely to be needed. Updates to those datasets are available every six weeks, and the Ordnance Survey is engaged with the emergency services on their specific needs and on whether increasing the frequency of that supply of information would be useful.

As the hon. Lady may be aware, there has recently been a trial, which concluded at the end of February, and the Ordnance Survey is currently analysing the findings of that work in order to develop options. The North West Ambulance Service—not the north-east service—was part of the initial trial, and it has fed its experience into that process. So there is ongoing work on central procurement and also on that trial, examining the issues that the hon. Lady has brought before the House today.

I recognise that the frequency of the updates has been variable, and the hon. Lady was quite right to draw the House’s attention to that. As part of the ambulance radio programme, a replacement mobilisation application has been procured for use in ambulance vehicles across all the NHS ambulance trusts in England. Under that contract, the supplier is required to provide mapping software and an embedded satellite navigation system to assist ambulance crews with the prompt location of emergency incidents. The contract also requires the supplier to provide automated, over-the-air map and satellite navigation updates on a quarterly basis, and to report the current versions of the maps being used for audit purposes.

I am sure the hon. Lady will join me in welcoming those developments. The new system will make up-to-date map and satellite navigation data more readily available to all emergency crews.

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Has the Minister given any consideration to my hon. Friend’s concern about the lack of data that has been collected, and would there be any benefit to collecting that information, to make sure that the new system that will come on-stream is distinctly preferable to the old system?

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The hon. Lady makes a pertinent point; I was just going to come on to the issue of timing. There are two aspects to this process: the updating of control systems and the updating of vehicles. Different work is happening on both those things, but she suggests a third point to be considered—the data that feeds into those two systems, and the time period between housing development coming on-stream and the systems being updated. Those are the points that I take from her remarks and they will inform further discussions with Government as part of the pilots and the other work that is already under way.

The North East Ambulance Service has improved the processes for updating its mapping system, and I suspect that much of the credit for that goes to the hon. Member for Darlington for raising the issues that she has raised. The trust has upgraded its computer-aided dispatch system and control room mapping updates, and they can now be installed without affecting the wider system, which was one of the difficulties previously. The upgrade allows for six-weekly additions of notifications received from local authorities when new housing estates are opened, better equipping 999 dispatchers to guide ambulance crews to locations when they need assistance. Other ambulance trusts have similar arrangements for updating the control room systems that are currently in place.

The North East Ambulance Service Trust has also improved the frequency of its updates to its individual vehicle mapping systems, moving from an annual update to one every six months. Again, that is not the timeline that the hon. Lady quite rightly highlighted, but it does show that there is a focus on this area, and it shows the direction of travel on improvements.

We recognise that there is variation in the updating of ambulance vehicle systems. That is driven by the fact that different systems are in place in different services. For example, some trusts are able to update their ambulances through wi-fi, while others require lengthy manual updates to be performed during regularly scheduled vehicle servicing. Following this debate, one of the issues that I will be keen to explore further with officials is what will happen as we procure new vehicles. We will consider what can be done to address the issues that the hon. Lady raised today.

The common ambition among ambulance trusts is to upgrade vehicles in a six-month rotation, and we will improve on that rate further with the new national solution. Some trusts have also taken the approach of providing personal-issue tablets with online-style mapping, which can be used by ambulance crews as a back-up to the vehicle’s satellite navigation system and use the most recent commercially released maps.

A range of work is under way within the ambulance service on changes to how calls are triaged and processed, which will address some of the imbalance between rural and urban areas that we have seen in the past. There is work on changes to control room systems and on upgrades. I will happily take forward the point raised by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) about the timescales and about what work can be done and is being done on that.

The hon. Member for Darlington deserves credit within her own trust area for raising these issues as a consequence of the tragedy that Charlotte has had to endure. There is a focus within ambulance trusts across England on the need to ensure that upgrades are made in a more timely fashion. The hon. Lady has rightly brought that point before the House, and I will continue to take it forward with officials in the weeks and months ahead.

Question put and agreed to.