HC Deb 29 November 1995 vol 267 cc1170-8

11 am

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

I want to draw attention to a matter of great controversy and sensitivity in my constituency—proposals to change fire cover in the Wyre Forest and north Worcestershire area.

I start by paying tribute to the firemen of the Worcestershire and north Worcestershire area, who do a magnificent job. Indeed, two members of the Hereford and Worcester brigade lost their lives in 1993, fighting a fire in Hereford.

The proposals by the chief fire officer, as part of what he called a "zero-based fire cover review", in September 1995 are unacceptable to people in my constituency, and reduce fire cover to an unacceptable level. It is proposed to close the retained station at Bewdley, and to halve the full-time complement at Kidderminster, reduce the number of its appliances and remove its hydraulic platform.

That has caused a huge amount of controversy. We have received a petition of 25,000 signatures against the proposals. The Wyre Forest district council has a special working party to act against them. The proposals have been the subject of innumerable meetings and letters to me and to Hereford and Worcester county council. I hope that, even at this late stage, the people responsible in the fire authority will review their proposals, which are unacceptable.

I understand that the county council has set up a working party, which is due to report by the end of January 1996. Although, under the Fire Services Act 1947, the proposals must ultimately go to the Home Office for approval, I hope that those proposals will be withdrawn before that becomes necessary.

Although much has been said about the financial background to that matter, I do not believe that the financial background is the principal cause of the proposals about which so many fears have been expressed. Indeed, several councillors have said that, even were they able to spend more money on the fire service, it would continue to be intent on those wrong-headed proposals. Nevertheless, I should say one or two things about the background to the financial position of the fire service in Hereford and Worcester.

Hereford and Worcester is bottom of all shire counties in its standard spending assessment per head allocation for fire—about £16.80 per head, by contrast with an average for the shires, let alone the metropolitan areas, of about £20.55. That effectively means that, instead of the county being able to spend about £14 million a year—which is what is actually spent, because the county council spends money in addition to the allocated SSA—which would have been the case had Hereford and Worcester been given an SSA at the county average, only £11.5 million is spent related to the SSA.

Mr. Michael Spicer (South Worcestershire)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way in an excellent speech, in which he makes an important argument on behalf of his part of the county. I am the Member of Parliament for the other part of the county, which is covered by the same fire service, which, as my hon. Friend knows, was enormously stretched this summer in, among other things, putting out those enormous fires on the Malvern hills.

I have a problem similar to that of my hon. Friend. The fire service is starting to speak about closing Pebworth fire station in the same way as the Bewdley fire station in my hon. Friend's constituency. In the context of what my hon. Friend is saying, I wanted to ask him about funding.

Is it not peculiar—I have previously drawn this matter to the attention of the Minister—that the way in which fire services must spend their money is calculated on the basis of risk analysis, but the money that is made available for them is calculated on the basis of historic spend? There is a mismatch between the budgeting process and the funding process. Is that not at the back of my hon. Friend's argument?

Mr. Coombs

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. To give an idea of the scale of the problem we have, not only is there a gap of 21 per cent. between the shire average SSA and the Hereford and Worcester SAA, but that gap has grown historically. Even if the plan is implemented by the chief fire officer, the gap will increase to about 30 per cent.

I know that Baroness Blatch has spoken to members of Hereford and Worcester county council about that matter. I know that the Government are reviewing the area cost adjustment, which militates against counties in our region. I also know that the Government, with the Department of the Environment, are reviewing the mechanism by which the fire service SSA is calculated.

I am worried that the Hereford and Worcester county council fire brigade appeared not to know what the nine options were that had been laid down in that working party for the review of the SSA. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Worcestershire (Mr. Spicer) says, there is a significant difference between the options.

For instance, option 1, which, on fire safety, would give greater credence to the number of premises and plans that were covered by the fire service and, on fire prevention, would give greater credence to the number of pupils in schools, would mean that an SSA settlement for Hereford and Worcester would be increased by 23 per cent. on 1995–96 figures, or by £2.7 million, which would reflect current spending in the way we require.

There is a strong case for, not an activity-based approach, but a fire station-based approach, based on the number of homes and the sparsity of population in much of the area. I urge Ministers to get on with considering such a redistribution of resources. I hope that we shall hear something good when we hear the local government finance settlement, which we expect tomorrow.

It is an irony that the proposals, far from saving money, will cost about £340,000 to implement and £240,000 a year from then on. They involve the redundancy of 28 whole-time personnel from Kidderminster—half the whole-time personnel—the removal of a whole-time pumping appliance and the hydraulic platform there, and the closure of the Bewdley retained station, in a way that has caused uproar.

Those proposals are wrong-headed for several reasons. First, they are a perverse redistribution of resources, even within the county. Kidderminster, which, in the period July to September 1995, had 762 turn-outs, will be downgraded, whereas Bromsgrove, which had only 427, will be upgraded to the same level as Kidderminster, in spite of the fact that it had only slightly more than half the number of calls. With the closure of Bewdley, Kidderminster, even on a downgraded basis, will now be expected, with half the whole-time personnel, to cover an area not of 50 square miles, as hitherto, but of 90 square miles.

The boundaries set within Bewdley between those areas that are designated C in the review and those that are designated as lower-risk D areas lack all logic, owing more to the squares of the Ordnance Survey map than to any idea of the community and the physical geography. The Lakes residential estate is regarded as a C risk area, whereas St. Anne's middle and first schools, where there are a great many vulnerable young people right next to the Lakes industrial estate, are regarded as being in a D area.

The fact that Kidderminster has been downgraded from B to C status does not reflect the very many small factories, many with chemical and electrical processes, in the town. The matter has been drawn to my attention by firefighters in the area.

Moreover, the proposals completely ignore the historic nature of Bewdley, the proximity and complicated nature of its buildings, the high proportion of elderly people in its population, and the presence of tourist attractions such as the Severn valley railway and the safari park, which not only increase the risk of fire but make access difficult, particularly during the rush hours and at tourist peak times.

I shall concentrate on two specific problems. The first relates to response times. If a fire service is to be credible, its fire engines must be able to reach a fire within the time laid down. The centre of Bewdley is designated a C area, which means—according to Home Office recommendations—that one fire engine must reach a fire in between eight and 10 minutes. If the proposals are implemented, that fire engine will have to come from Kidderminster.

In a letter dated 11 September, the chief fire officer told me that that could be done in eight minutes. On 19 September, he elaborated on that, saying that it could be done at a speed of no more than 30 mph, with no lights or two-tone alarms, obeying traffic regulations and in a rush hour. His deputy took the same line, saying that trials had been carried out showing that the journey could be done in eight minutes and 45 seconds. Most people, including firefighters, do not believe that; although the distance is only about three miles, they do not see how it could be achieved.

I have discovered the answer, however. Apparently, the calculation is done on the basis that the clock stops when the vehicle is stationary. It will not be of much comfort to someone in a fire to be told, "We can get to you in eight to 10 minutes, provided that our fire engine is moving all the time." If the vehicle is held up by traffic lights or a traffic jam, the period could be much longer, and lives could be put at risk. That, I feel, reveals the absurdity of the fire officer's argument that response times will be acceptable.

It is suggested that, in the event of a fire in, for example, a block of flats, a hydraulic platform can be transported from Bromsgrove to Kidderminster—a distance of at least six miles—within that period of eight to 10 minutes. According to Mr. R. E. Smith of Kidderminster, who drives that hydraulic platform, If he thinks the hydraulic platform can provide adequate cover from Bromsgrove"— "he" being the chief fire officer— he is wrong. I drive the appliance. He doesn't. I doubt if Mr. O'Dwyer has even the slightest idea how long it would take an appliance such as the hydraulic platform to get from Bromsgrove to Kidderminster. He is sure that it would not be possible to take the platform to the scene of the fire within the required time, particularly during rush hours.

My second point relates to the cost of fire cover. If the full-time team of firemen in Kidderminster and their pumping appliance are to go—and, according to best practice, there should be two appliances for each fire, so that back-up is available—retained crews will have to be called out for every fire. It has been estimated by the Fire Brigades Union that turn-outs by retained firefighters would increase by no less than 398 per cent. in my area.

First, that is likely to increase costs, which should be allowed for in the review. Secondly, it will affect recruitment. As a firefighter asked in a letter to me, what employers will allow their fire officers to have four times as much time off as they had before? Thirdly, because retained firefighters cannot reach a fire as quickly as non-retained full-time firefighters, the speed of attack and the effectiveness of firefighting will be reduced.

I am also concerned about the way in which the fire brigade, the fire authority and the county council have consulted on these controversial proposals. This is not the first time that such consultation has taken place; in 1988, 1993 and 1994, the townspeople of Bewdley—with my support—repelled attempts to close their fire station. Although the circumstances of the town were exactly the same then as they are now, special circumstances of the kind that I have outlined were identified by professional officers on the fire review team, and it was decided that the station should remain open.

The same circumstances obtain today. Indeed, the original fire cover review report—produced by three senior officers and others for the chief fire officer earlier this year—specifically states that, although in statistical terms there may well be a case for closing the Bewdley fire station, as there has been on all the previous occasions, Having paid due regard to these influences, it is our professional opinion that the fire station at Bewdley is maintained as at present. The town is of historic importance, and many of the properties are of architectural value. The attractive riverside properties provide a backdrop to a thriving community reliant upon the tourist industry. The report refers to the River Severn and the safari park, which attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year—people who contribute significantly to the county's economy. It adds: The hotels, restaurants, shops, guest houses and leisure facilities that line the narrow streets of Bewdley present a substantial fire risk and the potential for rapid fire spread with dire consequences is ever present. It is for these reasons that we cannot recommend the closure of Bewdley fire station. That is said every time the closure is proposed. It was said this year, and completely ignored by the chief fire officer.

I understand that the document was given anonymously to the chairman of the Wyre Forest working group which is studying the proposals. He—Councillor John Gordon—openly gave it to the chairman of the county council's fire services committee, who photocopied it and gave it back to him. At 4 o'clock on 27 November, the police raided the home of this gentleman, who was doing his best to help the people of Bewdley to retain their fire service, saying that they were dealing with the theft of a document.

Initially, the chief fire officer denied any knowledge of the document. Then his deputy said, "Okay, it does exist, but only minor grammatical changes have been made." In fact, the main thrust of the proposals had been completely changed. The first version said, "Do not close Bewdley fire station"; the second said, "We are going to close it."

On 30 October, the Home Office—in the person of Baroness Blatch—wrote to me saying that the Home Office would give permission for changes to the fire service only when representations have been considered by the authority. The authority appears to be ignoring even the advice of its own professional officers, a group that it set up specifically to examine the fire cover review. I do not believe that it can be proved that the consultation exercise has been carried out thoroughly, and I hope that that will weigh heavily with Ministers if these wrong-headed plans are ever submitted to them. Even at this late stage, I sincerely hope that they will not.

I ask the Government to review the SSA allocations for fire cover, and the way in which the area cost adjustment is calculated. If the county council rejects the proposals and reduces fire cover in the Wyre Forest area, saying that it is unnecessary and expensive, without a jot of popular support, that would be potentially dangerous.

11.19 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Timothy Kirkhope)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) on securing this debate on the fire service in Worcestershire. May I also welcome to the debate today my hon. Friend the Member for South Worcestershire (Mr. Spicer), who I know is most interested in these matters?

The Government have a high regard for the fire service, a regard that is shared by the general public. In its report on the fire service earlier this year, entitled "In the line of fire", the Audit Commission stated that the fire service can be proud of its record in responding to incidents, that it has high levels of skill and professionalism, is staffed by able managers and courageous front-line staff, and is held in great esteem by both the general public and individuals who have needed its assistance.

I whole-heartedly endorse the commission's comments and, indeed, have a personal reason for being pleased to be here today: my late father was a member of the well-known National Fire Service at the beginning of the war. The photographs in our family album show him with rather more primitive equipment than is at present deployed by the fire services of this country, but nevertheless those photographs give my family a great amount of pride.

One of my earliest memories is of being taken to Newcastle's Pilgrim street fire station by my father and being allowed to descend the pole—not the greasy pole of politics—and to see the firemen polishing the bells on their fire engines. I do not know whether they still do that in my hon. Friend's constituency, but it is a matter of great pride to me that I have those early recollections.

My hon. Friend referred to Government funding of the fire service, and to SSAs. There are two underlying issues in relation to fire service funding: whether the total public expenditure provision for local government is sufficient; and, given that total, how we distribute it in terms of SSAs among the local authorities.

The total provision has to be broadly consistent with our restraint on public expenditure as a whole. I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of that need. The Government concluded that, for 1995–96, local authorities as a whole should have an increase of 0.8 per cent. when compared on a like-for-like basis with 1994–95.

That is not as much as many would have liked, but in our view the settlement for 1995–96 was realistic in the current economic climate, in the context of low inflation and the requirement that pay increases in the public sector should be met from increased efficiency. It reflected a balanced and reasoned judgment on the understandable desire for more local authority expenditure and on what the country can afford.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, will be making an announcement tomorrow on the provisional local government finance settlement for 1996–97. My hon. Friend referred to the distribution formula for the fire service element of SSAs. We have indeed been looking, with the Department of the Environment and local authority associations, at the formula for 1996–97, taking account of matters such as pensions, fire safety and other factors that the associations wish to raise.

Mr. Michael Spicer

Does fire safety include the concept of fire risk, which is at the root of the budgeting arrangements in which the fire services have to engage?

Mr. Kirkhope

My hon. Friend has raised that matter with me once before, and I undertook then to look at it. I am still doing so, and understand that it is a possible area to be considered.

It is important to remember that a shire county is not limited in its spending on its fire brigade by the fire service share of its SSA. What matters is the overall SSA for the county council. It is for the county council to decide its priorities for spending across all its services, bearing in mind its statutory and other responsibilities.

Before I refer specifically to the fire service in north Worcestershire, it would be helpful if I explained the framework within which decisions about fire cover are taken. It is important to remember that the fire service is a local authority service—it has been since the Fire Services Act 1947 transferred firefighting functions from the wartime National Fire Service, to which I have already referred.

Statutory responsibility for providing an effective and efficient fire service to meet all normal requirements rests with the local fire authority. It is for the fire authority—Hereford and Worcester county council, in this case—to decide how much of its overall budget to spend on its fire service to comply with its statutory responsibilities.

As to the Government's role, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has various duties under the Act. He monitors performance through Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services, and is responsible for promoting high and consistent standards in such matters as training, equipment, promotion and recruitment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest said, under section 19 of the Act, my right hon. and learned Friend is also required to be notified of the fire authority's establishment—the number of its fire stations, fire appliances and firefighting posts—as at 1 January each year. Of particular relevance to the debate is the fact that the fire authority may not reduce its establishment, although it can increase it, without my right hon. and learned Friend's consent.

My right hon. and learned Friend has a specific and limited role in considering applications under section 19. He grants approval where the following conditions are satisfied. First, the proposals must have been sufficiently widely publicised, in sufficient detail and with adequate time, to enable any interested party to make representations; my hon. Friend referred to the question of consultation and representations. Secondly, the representations must have been considered by the fire authority; thirdly, after taking advice from Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services, my right hon. and learned Friend must be satisfied that the nationally recommended standards of fire cover will be maintained.

I must emphasise that it is not the role of my right hon. and learned Friend to decide whether the proposals that a fire authority makes represent the best arrangements for fire cover. Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services is available to advise the authority on that matter. Ultimately, however, responsibility rests with the fire authority, which is accountable in law for the service that its provides.

The 1947 Act does not define the test of an effective and efficient fire service, which a fire authority must provide to meet normal requirements for fire cover. But it is long-standing practice to interpret that by reference to the nationally recommended minimum standards of fire cover. The standards are not just nationally recommended; they are nationally agreed in the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, which was established by the 1947 Act and on which the relevant fire service organisations are represented. They were also reviewed by the Joint Committee on Standards of Fire Cover in 1985 for the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Councils for England and_ Wales and for Scotland. The standards enable all concerned to know where they stand as regards the minimum level of service that they should be delivering.

The Audit Commission's report called for greater local flexibility in the application of the fire cover standards. It did not say precisely how the standards should be changed, and recognised that no change should be considered without careful research. The issue is being considered by the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, but it is a complex matter, on which much work will be needed.

Following the 1985 review of standards, all fire authorities in Great Britain reviewed their risk categorisation and the resources necessary to comply with the nationally recommended minimum standards. I am aware that an extensive review of fire cover was completed by the Hereford and Worcester brigade, and the results were circulated recently for public comment. I understand that the recommendations of the review could, if implemented, have significant implications for fire cover in my hon. Friend's constituency and elsewhere, and that they include proposals to close the fire station at Bewdley and to remove a pumping appliance that is staffed by full-time firefighters, and a hydraulic platform from Kidderminster.

The implementation of those recommendations, which involve a reduction of fire cover, would, as I have explained, require an application under section 19 of the 1947 Act for my right hon. and learned Friend's approval. It is a matter for the county council to consider what action it proposes to take in respect of that review, in the light of the representations that it has received and advice from Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services. I hope that this will also take account of my hon. Friend's references to various other factors, such as response times, the interesting timing system and the earlier report surrounding the circumstances of Bewdley fire station.

My right hon. and learned Friend has already received a number of representations—including, of course, one from my hon. Friend, about the fire cover review. I can assure my hon. Friend that, should the county council make application to reduce fire cover in any part of the county, my right hon. and learned Friend will take those representations into account in reaching his decisions. I am sure that the county council will wish to give careful consideration to the points that my hon. Friend has made today.

It being half-past Eleven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put, pursuant to Order [20 November].