Following the recent announcement from the Prime Minister that he is changing fire and rescue services from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) over to the Home Office, I believe, as a local authority which is currently consulting on service cuts in line with the DCLG financial package, that we need to know what this change means both to Northumberland Fire and Rescue Service (NFRS) and to the people of the county who are campaigning to keep their community fire stations open.
Council cutbacks from DCLG have forced us, as a unitary authority, to find additional revenue support from council reserves since 2013 to keep up staffing and property levels for the service.
The ability to continue that level of support is no longer available and we find ourselves in a consultation period in order to drive forward council thinking on revenue – the money which pays for service delivery – to either make cutbacks in the fire and rescue service or cut back other essential services.
In order to colour our ideas as we work on crucial budget decisions, we need to know what the government’s massive change means.
Does it mean money will be made immediately available by the Home Office to run fire and rescue services, allowing it to safeguard fire stations until it does its own review?
Or does it mean that it will expect the council to pass this service between government departments in a cut-down manner, as DCLG-funded council services find themselves in a position of relative safety and not exposed to challenge through the pressures on the fire and rescue budgets for the 2016/7 financial year?
Or does the move to the Home Office mean that, like the police, fire and rescue services are no longer subject to the latest round of DCLG cuts in budget, which the chancellor highlighted in the autumn statement?
We would also like to know if NFRS is to be properly financed. With NFRS being part of the county council, we are actually subsidising the service as the allocation by DCLG is not enough.
We have one of the smallest fire and rescue services in the country, but cover one of the largest geographical areas, with all that entails in delivering services.
The Prime Minister’s written statement to parliament indicated that the Home Office will now be responsible for the ‘workforce reform’ of fire and rescue services.
In Northumberland, we have first-hand experience of the coalition’s Home Office workforce reform through the privatisation of HMP Northumberland. This was a cost-cutting exercise for government that now relies on rent and council tax support for prison workers, causing a further drain on resources.
I look forward to the fire minister’s response on this as a matter of urgency.
Coun Grant Davey
Leader, Northumberland County Council