Lyn Brown sets out Labour’s vision for the fire and rescue services – providing renewed leadership, frontline protection and support to ensure they meet future challenges.
OVER THE past five years, fire and rescue services across England have faced a real, sustained financial challenge. George Osborne’s 201 Spending Review has brought year-on-year funding reductions to the Revenue Support Grants of each of our 46 fire and rescue authorities. Since 2010, there has been a cumulative cash cut of £318 million, amounting to some 30% of the 2010 grant levels.
The challenge does not end there. We know that the Tories are planning far more extreme cuts to public spending over the next parliament, driven by their ideological goal of cutting back the size of the state. It is clear that Tory spending plans constitute a real threat to our most valued public services – our NHS, our police forces and our fire and rescue services.
There is an alternative to this. A Labour government will take a different approach on the deficit at the same time as focusing on building a strong and sustainable economy with growth driven by jobs and rising living standards.
We will get the current budget into surplus, cut the deficit each year, and make sure that the national debt falls. But we will make fairer choices to help protect vital services, balancing the books by reversing David Cameron’s tax cut for millionaires; introducing a Mansion Tax on properties worth more than £2 million; scrapping the awful bedroom tax; and raising the minimum wage. Unlike this government, we do not have a slash and burn approach to public services.
All of us know that, our fire and rescue services – like all public services – will need to continue to do more with even less, and that we still face tough times ahead. This is why I believe it is so important for the Service to receive the leadership it deserves from central government. A Labour government is committed to providing that leadership and taking an active role in protecting and transforming our service.
Sadly, this government has chosen to wash its hands of responsibility with a total abrogation of leadership on fire and rescue. It is nearly two years since Sir Ken Knight published his Facing the Future review, and the only response we have had from the Department for Communities and Local Government was a short written statement last summer after Labour repeatedly questioned when the government
Fantastic work has been done across the country to find efficiency savings and develop new and innovative operational approaches to date, but we need to think strategically about the coming years in the light of straightened financial times.
A Labour government will offer real leadership, responsibility and partnership, working with fire and rescue authorities and those across the sector to ensure a safe and sustainable path into the future. It is our duty to ensure the service is fit for the future, equipped to protect the safety of the public and its staff, and capable of dealing with changing risk patterns and new dangers.
We will not bury our heads in the sand. Labour is committed to protecting and developing our vital public services.
Our key priority is supporting the frontline to protect the public. Firefighters are among our most valued public servants – they put their lives on the line every day to protect us and they deserve our full support. It is their work that has brought down the numbers of deaths and casualties from fire, and it is their excellent community preventative work that has successfully targeted risk and prevented incidents.
As the Local Government Association has reminded us, fire and rescue authorities plan and budget according to risk, and not only to service demand. Mitigating risk is at the heart of what our critical emergency resources do. As well as responding to emergency calls, firefighters are out in our communities educating people on fire risks and a host of other hazards, making sure that fewer incidents happen in the first place.
This is a principle that underpins Labour’s vision for the Fire and Rescue Service. In much the same way that fewer deaths from cancer should not elicit calls for less screening, we must not accept those who argue that declining emergency call-outs mean there is less need. It is clear that we need to work towards an allocation of resources based on risk, continue home fire safety checks, and recognise the overwhelming impact of prevention and protection work.
There must also be a recognition of changing local and national risk patterns, reflected in the expectations we have of our Fire and Rescue Service. Most obviously, our population is ageing and more people are living alone in their later years. There are now 11 million people in the private rented sector and 1.3 million families with children. As part of our plans to improve renting, we will create a national register of landlords so local authorities can introduce proper licensing to maintain standards and make it a requirement for smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors to be installed in privately rented homes.
We also recognise that the Fire and Rescue Service does so much more than dealing with fires element of firefighters’ duties has seen huge growth over recent years, with responses to road traffic collisions, water rescue, terrorist incident, and a host of other emergencies becoming more commonplace. Co- and firstresponding schemes have become widespread across the service, with the number of medical incidents the Fire and Rescue Service attends rising by about 10% each year.
This reflects a dynamic local and national risk pattern, to which the Fire and Rescue Service is expected to respond. Labour is clear that it will provide the leadership to ensure a service that is fit for the future and able to adapt to changing risk accordingly.
That is why we have committed to introducing a statutory duty for the Fire and Rescue Service to attend flooding incidents, providing clarity and increasing safety. Scotland has had this duty on its fire and rescue service since 2005 and it was introduced in Northern Ireland in January 2012. It is important to bring England and Wales into line with the rest of the UK, especially with the growing threat of floods and climate change more broadly.
There are further reassurances Labour has given about the future of the Fire and Rescue Service. We have been clear that under a Labour government, there will be no threat of fire and rescue authorities being subsumed by police and crime commissioners (PCCs), as Theresa May has hinted she would like to see. Labour will scrap PCCs altogether, as they have proved wasteful and unaccountable.
Importantly, Labour has been unequivocal in its rejection of privatisation of the Fire and Rescue Service. Any such move would run totally counter to our values, especially in a vital public emergency service. Under Labour, it will be public safety that drives development in our service, not the pursuit of private profit.
Over the past months, Labour has opened a conversation with fire and rescue authorities and others about the way forward, looking closely at how we might best cut costs and protect services. Innovative delivery models.
In his 2013 review, Sir Ken Knight said that ‘46 individual fire and rescue authorities, each with different governance structures, senior leaders, and organisational and operational quirks does not make for a sensible delivery model’. Mergers between fire and rescue authorities could offer a more efficient operational model for the future with streamlined management structures, shared back office operations and collaborative procurement among other benefits. Over the past five years, mergers between neighbouring authorities have taken place, most recently with the business case put forward by Dorset and Wiltshire.
Given the scale of the financial challenge, there is a range of options that we will consult on in government if we win, including encouraging further bottom-up mergers between neighbouring authorities, moving to a smaller number of authorities and the potential for a national single service. We have also asked for other ideas. We have a completely open mind on the way forward and have asked for a thorough critique on all options, identifying the financial and operational risks and benefits.
Fit and sustainable service
Our priority, however, is clear. Above all, we will strive to protect the frontline, enabling it to continue to protect public safety, rescue us from a range of emergencies and contend with a diverse array of local and national risks.
We will work with fire and rescue authorities to enable them to continue with innovative operational measures and greater collaboration, both within the fire and rescue service and with other blue-light services.
And we will support our fire and rescue authorities to navigate tough financial times, working together to ensure a fit and sustainable Fire and Rescue Service
Lyn Brown is Shadow Fire and Communities Minister.