Our fire services are in line for major changes – after a former chief fire officer warned they cannot carry on as they are.
Mergers, a massive increase in the use of part-time firefighters and even the contracting out of services to the private sector have all been proposed.
But ministers face a major political battle if they choose to impose changes.
The proposals were drawn up by Sir Ken Knight, a former Chief Fire Officer in the West Midlands and London, who was asked to carry out a review of fire services by the Government.
Ministers are now considering his findings, which are not yet government policy.
But Sir Ken warned that the existing of 46 different fire and rescue authorities, with some costing far more than others, could not continue.
The challenge facing ministers if they do agree to take his ideas on board was illustrated by the row over plans to reform Cleveland Fire Service.
Cleveland Fire Authority wants to hand responsibility for fire-fighting over to a mutual – a business owned by its staff.
It has created a “community interest company” to provide services, designed to serve the community rather than to make a profit.
Nonetheless, the Fire Brigades Union and some Labour have MPs have warned that this could be the first step to full privatisation of services, a claim that Ministers and Cleveland’s Chief Fire Officer both firmly deny.
Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis speaking in the Commons earlier this month, told a Labour critic: “I have made clear on more than one occasion that we will not privatise the fire service, notwithstanding the scaremongering of members of his party.” But while stressing that no decisions had been made, he praised Sir Ken’s report, saying: “It is very well written, and there is much in it for us to note.
“I look forward to the responses that we shall receive from the sector itself and from authorities more generally.”
The report found that huge variations exist between how the 46 different fire authorities operate, with the cost of providing a service ranging from £26 per person in some places to £50 per person in others.
And the cost seems not to be related to whether the areas covered by each force are large or small, rural or urban, deprived or affluent.
His report predicted that if those authorities spending above the average found ways to reduce their spending to the national average, then the money saved or reinvested could amount to nearly £200 million per year.
He said: “It’s apparent that we spend almost twice as much in some areas as others and yet there seems to be little relationship between expenditure and the reduction in demand for operational response in different fire and rescue authorities.
“Differences in operational practices, including minimum crewing levels and the ratio of senior managers to firefighters further show that there are savings to be made without reducing the quality of outcomes for the public.”
So what can be done to cut costs?
One of the most controversial proposals is likely to be a call to merge services.
Sir Ken said in his report: “The 46 fire and rescue authorities, each with different governance structures, senior leaders, and organisational and operational quirks does not make for a sensible delivery model.”
He also admitted: “Mergers can be a solution, but there is a lack of local political appetite and incentive to combine.”
But if local politicians – and the wider public – oppose mergers, that means that national government must step in.
Sir Ken called for “efficiencies driven by government and national leaders in the sector”, including “enforced mergers to reduce the number of fire and rescue authorities”.
The report also called for fire services to work more closely with other blue light services – which could mean joint creating joint fire, police and ambulance stations, allowing some existing buildings to be sold off, and even putting fire services under the control of Police and Crime Commissioners.
Other proposals include making much more use of “on call” firefighters, who have other jobs but are available for emergency calls on a standby basis.
They are paid an annual retainer and fees for attending training, emergencies and giving fire safety advice, which can come to between £5,000 and £7,000 a year – much less than the salary of a full-time firefighter.
On-call firefighters currently make up about 30 per cent of the fire service. Sir Ken proposed increasing this to at least 40 per cent.
He also said fire services could save £17 million nationwide by cutting back on senior managers.
And he said that many services were employing staff on work which benefitted the community, such as working with former offenders or mentoring children, but was not directly related to preventing fires – and warned that this would have to stop. They will need to compare the added value a firefighter can bring to the cost of employing a youth or social worker at lower expense... where fire and rescue authorities continue to pay for firefighters to carry out community roles, they need to be assured that it makes a meaningful contribution to reducing risk,” he said.
Most controversially, Sir Ken addressed the issue of privatisation head on.
Referring to Cleveland’s plans, he said: “There is also a level of concern among the public that involving what is essentially a company, however it is run, in the delivery of frontline emergency services brings a risk of a ‘profit over lives’ mentality.
“Having said this, there is already a range of fire and rescue activities currently outsourced to both the private sector and other parts of the public sector including: support services, training, specialist rescue vehicle and equipment maintenance, call handling and despatch.”
And he continued: “It is of note that one of the most respected international sector fire and rescue services is that provided in Denmark by private contractor Falck, whilst in the UK most international airports have firefighters employed by the private sector.”
Sir Ken said it would be essential to ensure an independent regulator and inspector oversaw privatised services.
But he concluded one option would be “following international example and privatising the provision of fire and rescue services.”
That certainly doesn’t mean privatisation is going to happen, and Ministers insist they oppose any such move.
But even if Sir Ken’s more radical ideas are rejected by the Government, our fire services are set for dramatic changes – and these are guaranteed to be controversial.
The Government’s response to the review is expected in the autumn.