A burning issue


Philip HuntPhil Hunt on the Coalition's dire threat to Metropolitan Fire and Rescue services

Earlier this week, an urgent meeting of metropolitan fire services took place with parliamentarians at Westminster, one consequence of which is that the Lords will today have a topical question debate on reduced funding for Fire and Rescue services.

The Coalition government is recklessly cutting services across the country with up to a thousand firefighter posts lost and dozens of fire engines being decommissioned. Already, these cuts have started to bite as response times go up, casualties rise and arson incidents increase. Yet Ministers are planning even deeper cuts for the next two years that will put lives at risk and national resilience under pressure.

As concerning, is their decision to allow the cuts to be unfairly distributed, so deprived areas and those with the highest incident rates are being hit the hardest. In response to this threat, the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, South Yorkshire and Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue services have produced an excellent report detailing the likely impact of the plans for the 2013-15 financial settlement. It makes for grim reading as it considers the potentially catastrophic impact of a 27% cut – a scenario which may occur if the same sort of unfair distribution is repeated as in 2011-12.

Arguably, the Metropolitan services should be protected, because risks and deprivation levels are greater and there are more incidents to deal with. They have been consistently amongst the most efficient in the country, and often the first to introduce modernisation and reform. Faced with large reductions on budgets, all these ‘Met’ services have made every effort to make savings elsewhere by cutting management costs and support functions. But frontline firefighters and their equipment form the bulk of their budgets and it is inevitable there will be an impact on them.

If the Met services were dealt with on the same basis as other services, they would have to plan for a 13.5% cut. This would inevitably hit the frontline, with response times lengthening and prevention work falling. However, a 27% cut, based on the last unfair settlement, would mean much more drastic cuts, firefighter redundancies, increased response times and reduced capacity. This in turn would affect the fire service contribution to national resilience, in which the Met brigades play a leading role.

My own excellent Fire and Rescue service in the West Midlands will be particularly affected. For years it has improved its efficiency by aligning resources to risk, reducing the number of appliances at night when risk and demand are lower, using smaller vehicles to tackle smaller fires and making the best use of the time of firefighters.

Ministers must explain the consequences of what they are proposing, or better still think again.

Lord Phil Hunt of Kings Heath is Labour’s Deputy Leader in the Lords

Published 18th October 2012


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