Just had a chance to watch the recording of the latest County Council meeting. It started off well with Councillors from all parties vowing to fight the Police & Crime Commissioner’s plan to take control of the fire & rescue service. The Leader of the Council, Louise Goldsmith, rightly praised the good work of firefighters across the County, but then appeared to claim that this was because of how the Council runs the service.
As anyone who has followed their management of the service will know, Louise Goldsmith’s party has closed four operational fire stations, cut operational fire engines by 24%, left wholetime crewed fire engines with bare minimum crews, presided over a drop in retained fire engine availability from 90% to 60%, and ‘achieved’ an increase in response times.
The fire & rescue service’s operational and preventative achievements are the result of the determination and commitment of firefighters, and have little to do with County Council management. So the real issue is not the distraction of our firefighters’ achievements, but who should manage the service. I don’t believe that PCC control is the right way forward, but this County Council’s record is not a good one.
Just look at Mrs Goldsmith’s claim that their democratic accountability and transparency meets the Home Secretary’s aspirations. The Cabinet system has seriously reduced accountability and transparency in West Sussex, especially when Conservative Councillors are in the majority and won’t challenge their Leader. When other Councillors express concern about problems or failings in the fire & rescue service, Cabinet Member David Barling just dismisses their concerns and expects that to be the end of the matter. His recent refusal to let County Councillors investigate concerns is not democratic accountability, and failing to provide accurate performance information is certainly not transparent.
If you needed further confirmation of this, you only had to listen to David Barling later in the meeting. Dr James Walsh pointed out that Mr Barling had misled the Council at the last meeting when he said, “Hampshire Fire & Rescue don’t actually come a great deal in to West Sussex, approximately its about 50 times every year”. The average figure over the last five years is in fact 145 times per year, and that is just to attend West Sussex incidents. They also come in to West Sussex several times a year to standby at fire stations, but those figures are not even recorded.
So, did Mr Barling apologise for misleading the Council? No, he misled them again by suggesting he was just talking about Emsworth. As you can see from the exact quote above he was not. To make matters worse, like some petulant teenager, he complained about the way Dr Walsh phrased the question. An accountable and transparent Cabinet Member would have humbly apologised for the error, assuming of course that it was a simple mistake and not an attempt to deliberately mislead.
Louise Goldsmith also suggested that West Sussex was meeting the Home Secretary’s aspirations for ‘greater collaboration with other emergency services’, and ‘opportunities for joint working and commissioning’, so is that true, or another weakness? Well, as Geoffrey Theobald, leader of the Conservatives on Brighton and Hove City Council, says, “I don’t think that West Sussex County Council are helping their case by continually rejecting a merger of the two brigades which both East Sussex County Council and Brighton and Hove City Council have supported over the years.”
In addition, West Sussex pulled out of a deal to merge vehicle procurement and maintenance with the other emergency services in Sussex and Surrey. Government funding was available for this project, but West Sussex decided to go solo with a part in-house and part private contract for this function. To give the illusion of it being an emergency services collaboration, they said it would be 'available' to other emergency services, yet it is in direct competition with the Surrey/Sussex project.
Louise Goldsmith’s confidence that the Home Secretary would be convinced by her ‘excellent model’ is, I fear, sadly misplaced. Significant changes and improvements are required if she is to stand any chance of convincing Theresa May that the fire & rescue service is safe in her hands.