Anyone reading the local press, or following events on the internet, will be aware of the County Council's campaign to stop the Fire & Rescue Service falling into the hands of the Sussex Police & Crime Commissioner.
I firmly believe that political oversight of the fire & rescue service ought to rest with elected Councillors, but let us look a bit closer at the County Council's handling of this issue and at some of the Councillors' comments.
"Safer in our hands". Well we don't know if it will, or will not, be safe in the PCC's hands, but we do know how WSCC has treated the service in recent years. Over the last six years they have:
- Closed four fire stations (they will say three, but Horley is no longer a proper fire station)
- Removed 11 operational fire engines, leaving just 35
- Failed to deliver the promised "new and creative options" to improve the retained service, with average availability for retained fire engines falling from 87% to 59%
- Failed to get both fire engines to critical incidents within the response standard for one in every four calls
"Cheaper in our hands" might be a more accurate slogan. West Sussex County Council only consider it worth spending £33.68 per year to protect each resident. Will the PCC spend more or less, well we clearly don't know, but the WSCC case has been weakened by their front-line service cuts.
Worryingly, Councillor Michael Brown's comments suggest he would be happy to see the PCC take over if that paltry figure could be cut even more. Other Conservative Councillors seemed more concerned with their friendship with the PCC, than with the safety of their residents.
Another Councillor argued against moving political oversight to the PCC, because it would be a 'one person fire authority'. Yet that is effectively what West Sussex has now. Councillors can ask questions and make comments, but Cabinet Member David Barling is the person who makes the decisions.
That also leaves the WSCC case very weak when compared to other fire authorities. In Hampshire Councillors vote on decisions and the public can see or hear them question the Chief Officer, and watch, or listen to, the discussion via their websites. It is that sort of transparency and accountability the government want, not the inadequate oversight provided by WSCC.
So WSCC fail the government's first objective, what of the other primary objective - closer working of the emergency services. Well they first walked away from setting up a Sussex Fire & Rescue Service that would have saved money and avoided the last round of front-line service cuts. More recently they pulled out of a joint vehicle procurement and maintenance project for the emergency services in the south-east. Supposedly that was to focus on integrating WSFRS with other council services. An integration that seems little more than putting the Chief Fire Officer in charge of some other small departments.
Astonishingly, Council Leader Louise Goldsmith makes the spurious suggestion that "prevention work could be lost if the service is taken over by the Police and Crime Commissioner’s office". There is no evidence to support her claim, so it sounds like her version of 'project fear'. The fire & rescue service already works closely with many more agencies outside the Council, than they do departments within. A change in management of the service will not prejudice co-operation and prevention work. Agencies can co-operate quite effectively without being joined at the hip.
Councillors must remove their rose tinted spectacles and replace spin and slogans with a solid case to demonstrate that the fire & rescue service is ‘safer in their hands’, and that they can meet the government's objectives.
As for their petition, well I would encourage people to sign it, although I cannot help but see the irony in it. WSCC wanting residents to sign a petition about management of the fire & rescue service, just months after Cabinet Member David Barling angrily dismissed a petition from residents wanting to stop cuts to the fire & rescue service. We will have to hope that the PCC shows more respect for petitioners than David Barling!