Steve Bassam on the frontline impact of reduced fire and rescue services in the urban South East
Labour councillors across the South East region are finding plenty of friends and supporters as they campaign to protect essential services like fire and rescue. The recent floods, high winds and storms have shown once again the need for effective first responder services like fire and rescue, police and ambulances. Working closely in areas affected by the recent extreme weather these front line public servants have shown the value of investment in their work.
Our TV screens have shown the emergency services hard at work with the army and environment agency staff preventing floods, rescuing civilians, pumping out homes and businesses, and offering help and support. But this is only one side of the story.
Just like the Environment Agency, many of these services are under threat from a reduced operating budget. On a recent visit to Hastings I was told by fire fighters doing essential rescue work of the £7.2m that the East Sussex Fire and Rescue service will have to cope without over the next few years. And up to 20% less front line staff will mean response times suffer, along with the capability to help during adverse and extreme weather.
Elsewhere in the South East, Brighton and Hove will also lose key personnel. Fire stations, appliances and 84 staff will go – plans approved by Green, UKIP, LibDem and Tory councillors, with only Labour voting against. In West Sussex, the County Council is planning to take out £2m from fire and rescue services – something that Labour councillors believe will mostly impact on Crawley and could impact negatively on fire fighting capability and response times.
The fire service has always had the ability to adapt to change. Over the last 20 years it has moved to fire prevention and first responder in tackling road traffic accidents. Helped by the preventative work accomplished by Labour in government, fires are now in decline. But when they do happen they can be devastating and it is vital that response time targets are met. Fires double in size for every minute they are left, so getting appliances in place in six minutes rather than eight makes a huge difference. The fear is that a new lower standard will become the norm.
Flooding has set fire and rescue services new challenges. Mutual aid deployment will be hampered if front line numbers are reduced, putting at risk support arrangements. Fire authorities will need to re-equip if they are to take on the new work implied by long term climate change. The government would be foolish to degrade this essential front line service at a time when we might need it more than ever.
Labour will continue to highlight the impact of all of this in urban areas in the south such as Crawley, Hastings, and Brighton and Hove; and the consequences of lost front line jobs and the taking out of commission of fire appliances and pumping equipment. Given the big new demands placed on the service, little of what is happening to it now makes much sense.
Lord Steve Bassam of Brighton is a former leader of Brighton and Hove City Council and Opposition Chief Whip in the House of Lords. He tweets @StevetheQuip
Published 5th March 2014