Friday, 17 May 2013

Centralist austerity focussed fire service review finds cuts and centralisation as a solution

The government has published the report by Sir Ken Knight on the future of the fire service. Much vaunted as independent, it must be borne in mind that this is a thin veil, the man was chief government adviser and the terms of the review clearly pointed by the coalition to centralise services and make cuts. Bearing all the hallmarks of the review and subsequent cuts to the Coastguard service and the number of operational stations. I wouldn't doubt the credibility of Sir Ken Knight he no doubt has forgotten more about the fire and rescue service than I will ever hope to know. But the basis of the review, it's terms and approach were fundamentally flawed and it is clear that the purpose of this exercise was to cut firefighters and merge services in the trademark top down re-organisation culture long prevalent in Whitehall.

Looking back to December the "Terms of reference" of the review are as follows:

To review the ways in which fire and rescue authorities may deliver further efficiencies and operational improvements without reducing the quality of front-line services to the public. The review will examine options for savings both within and beyond the current Spending Review period, including through:

  • firefighter training
  • flexible staffing and crewing arrangements
  • the use of retained firefighters
  • procurement
  • shared services
  • collaboration with emergency services and other organisations on service delivery and estates
  • sickness management
  • sharing of senior staff
  • locally led mergers and operational collaborations
  • new fire-fighting technology
  • preventative approaches
  • working with local businesses

It is clear that this is a very slanted way of conducting a review, if we were really to investigate the fire and rescue service or anything for that matter we need to start with an open mind. Shared services, sharing of senior staff, locally led mergers and operational collaborations 3 of the 12 things to investigate are intrinsically centralist. The review itself was part of the Spending Review, the idea that this is independent completely ignores the fact that austerity and centralisation not service and safety are the main drivers behind the review. Perhaps if the terms of the review were different we'd question why central government feels the need to interfere and that money could be saved by letting local fire authorities run their own affairs, localism? Perhaps we could cut costs by not having a Director of Fire, Resilience and Emergencies on £84,499 and a former Director Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser (author of this review) on £99,999 in Whitehall. The now chief adviser has a 'substantial' but unnamed 6 figure salary. Surprisingly difficult to find the budget of the CFRA.

As all top down reviews, lots of time was obviously spent looking at paperwork and finding figures to fit into preconceived ideas not a great deal talking to firefighters and the front line. In the review 10 fire authorities were visited across the whole of England out of a total of 46. As such the evidence was obviously catch all and failed to take into account conditions across the wide ranges of areas and challenges facing fire authorities. I very much doubt many actual firefighters were talked to and asked their opinions about what could be done better.

Browsing through the review, I was intrigued to see how the Fire and Rescue and Service could be changed to cope with the number of flooding incidents in Cornwall, recently a major challenge, of this there is no doubt. The document mentions floods and flooding 4 times and even cites figures that flooding incidents have decreased by 8%. Maybe true elsewhere but not everywhere is the same here I'd very much doubt Cornwall is anywhere near that trend. Here we are told that numbers of firefighters need reducing, yet some of the largest incidents faced here not even mentioned. Consider mines and cliffs the fire and rescue service deals with incidents underground and around the coast in Cornwall not mentioned in the review once.

The logic that merging authorities saves money is again trotted out. Much like Cornwall was told before unitary, the reality here in Penwith is that council tax went up as a result of this cost cutting measure and parking charges too. We have decisions made from afar with little or no regard for what people here think. Services haven't got better, savings are mythical and not based on clear evidence. We can't let this happen to Cornwall Fire and Rescue Services. Does it need to change? probably it does but let Cornwall decide itself, let the people that do this day to day have their say and free us from 'Whitehall interference' (to quote Nick Clegg).

Additionally I really hope the government doesn't use this review to centralise another public service out of Cornwall. We have an ambulance service and police force externally administered on Cornwall, with headquarters and jobs lost to the Cornish economy further undermining us and increasing the brain drain.

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