Saturday, 22 July 2017

Cabinet Member plays Russian roulette with public safety

I had thought we could not have a worse Cabinet Member looking after the fire & rescue service than David Barling. After Friday’s County Council meeting, I am not so sure.

High-rise buildings

The new Cabinet Member, Debbie Kennard, appeared at best complacent, at worst inept. She is new in the post, so some nervousness is forgivable, but rejecting serious safety concerns with waffle is not.

Following a written answer, Councillor Michael Jones voiced his concerns that the response to a fire in a high-rise building, when it is detected automatically, is frighteningly inadequate. If a fire is suspected by a person, then around 30 firefighters with six fire engines, an aerial ladder platform and a command vehicle will be sent immediately. Yet, if relatives have sensibly had an automatic alarm installed in a vulnerable person’s flat, and that detects a fire, only one fire engine with four firefighters will be sent. Firefighters will be unable to carry out rescue or firefighting until they call for backup and that help eventually arrives. The Cabinet Member ignored his concerns. 

Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, it is inconceivable that any responsible professional would recommend a policy that puts the public and firefighters in such danger. This can only be the Cabinet Member playing Russian roulette with the lives of the public she claims to protect and the firefighters she claims to support.

"Smoke detectors do detect real fires"

Councillor Jones also voiced concern about the estimated response time for high-rise buildings in West Sussex. The second fire engine won't always meet their generous response standard, and the full response could take more than half an hour to arrive. Response times that are all well over those recommended to the Prime Minister following the Grenfell Tower disaster. Yet the Cabinet Member failed to answer the Councillor's questions. Instead she read out some notes, which must have been prepared for an entirely different question. 

Similarly, when Councillor Kirsty Lord asked about inspections of schools, following the cladding problem at Grenfell Tower, the Cabinet Member decided to talk about the high-rise buildings that had been inspected.

Councillor Jones also questioned the previous lack of fire & rescue service inspections in high-rise buildings. He was told that inspections were risk assessed and priority given to vulnerable people "in buildings that are compliant with fire safety legislation and where staff are trained appropriately”. Councillor Jones pointed out that some people in high-rise buildings are also vulnerable, but there are no trained staff. The Cabinet Member was clearly not concerned with vulnerable people in high-rise buildings (shades of Kensington & Chelsea Council) and passed the buck to borough & district councils and building owners.

Cabinet Member unaware of her responsibilities

Councillor Brenda Smith asked if sprinklers will be included in new buildings built under the PropCo policy, which is where the County Council is the developer. The incredible answer from Councillor Kennard was, “we would love to put sprinklers in to buildings, but obviously we go by the regulations that are given to us by the fire & rescue authority”. 

Someone needs to tell her that the County Council is the fire & rescue authority and that, as Cabinet Member, she is responsible.

Cabinet Member fails to support fire service recommendations for sprinklers

Councillor James Walsh asked the Cabinet Member if she shared his concerns about reports that the Selsey Academy would ignore fire & rescue service advice and not install sprinklers in their new building. This was a golden opportunity for the Cabinet Member to show her support for the fire & rescue service and to promote the need for sprinklers to protect residents and firefighters. Instead, she chose to defend the company running the Academy by saying, “it is their choice”.

Police & Crime Commissioner's takeover threat is still real

Police & Crime Commissioner, Katy Bourne, has not abandoned her plans to take over the fire & rescue service, but has postponed the decision for two years. Sadly, the Cabinet Member’s response shows that she has yet to grasp the severity of the threat. Key elements of the Government’s case for change are that fire authorities need to be more accountable and transparent, and those are key weaknesses in West Sussex. Yet the Cabinet Member seemed oblivious and failed to respond positively, even to questions from Conservative Councillors.

Councillor Michael Jones threw the Cabinet Member a helpful lifeline by suggesting a cross-party group to work on dismantling the PCC’s report and strengthening the County Council’s case. He voiced concern that the Strategic Reference Group, which is there to guide the PCC’s review, only has Conservative politicians on it. Yet the Cabinet Member ignored the very important accountability and transparency issues that Councillor Jones was raising and rejected his suggestion.

County Councillors from all parties praised fire & rescue service personnel, which is great, but they are not the issue. The Government will eventually decide this issue on how well the County Council is running the service, not on how well staff are doing their jobs. The Cabinet Member kept referring to briefing notes sent to County Councillors, but clearly failed to grasp that is not providing proper accountability and transparency. Denying Councillors, from all political parties, the opportunity to discuss the issues and not making information available to the public, will simply strengthen Katy Bourne's hand.

Unless the Cabinet Member takes her head out of the sand, and recognises that it is her performance and the Council’s accountability and transparency that will be judged, then I fear for the future of our fire & rescue service.

Sean Ruth farce

Councillor James Walsh rightly criticised a written answer he was given on the dodgy deal that was done to enable Sean Ruth to ‘retire’ and keep his job. He pointed out that claiming the Executive Director post was not a Fire & Rescue Service post, when 90% of the Director’s budget is for the fire & rescue service, was less than honest. The answer also dishonestly claimed that there were no extra costs involved in splitting Sean Ruth’s post in two, and paying him a pension as well as his salary.

Council Chairman Lionel Barnard’s laughable defence of this farce began with him claiming that it was a “totally different post Mr Ruth was after”. Then, like a petulant teenager who doesn’t want to discuss their bad behaviour, Mr Barnard said, “he has decided not to take it up, so it is null and void.”

1 comment:

  1. Great Explanation.
    Fire Safety is really very imprtant to us.