Norfolk’s brave firefighters risk their lives every day to keep Norfolk safe and always deserve our support. Particularly right now, as they face a new challenge, this time not from fire or flood, but from the Government.
Norfolk Fire Rescue Service is a highly efficient service, run by Norfolk County Council, who listened to the public and committed to protecting the Fire Rescue Service budget, after the County Council’s Consultation two years ago when the public – including more than 13,000 petitioners – firmly told the county council that they did not want to see Norfolk Fire stations closed or fire crews cut. In South Lynn, we got cuts to the overnight crew at Lynn South Fire Station stopped when I showed it would put safety at risk.
But though Norfolk Fire Rescue Service is one of the cheapest per head in the country, after £5 million of “efficiency” savings since 2011, and there is really nowhere left to cut. The Government disagrees.
The Government thinks that, if police commissioners, such as Lorne Green in Norfolk, take over the Fire Rescue Service, they could drive through “significant change further and faster” with “ estates reduction”. This would mean selling off assets such as fire stations. This would mean the very cuts the public rejected, as it is plain that the Government would not fund the police commissioner properly. Cuts to estates and crews would be unsafe for Norfolk as the largest rural county, as retained firefighters have to be five minutes away from a Fire Station.
The Government wants the police commissioner to raise a new tax, a Fire Precept, on top of the council tax, if he takes over the Fire Service. The recent Grant Thornton Report said raising the new precept by 2 per cent each year, the maximum permitted without a local referendum, probably would not be enough. I do not think the new tax would be very popular.
It is also uncertain where the police commissioner would find the future capital funding needed, that now comes from the county council, if he takes over the fire service, as Norfolk Constabulary is a much smaller organisation than the county council, and the takeover could increase Constabulary debt by 126 per cent. The Fire Service could become less efficient if it ends up having to fund the Police Service.
What we do know, is that the Grant Thornton Report said there would not be much in the way of revenue benefits to the takeover, or from economies of scale in procurement, and only marginal benefits from improving “systems and process”.
So what is the point?
Everyone agrees that the current co-working between the Constabulary and the Fire Service, with shared headquarters, control room, estates, co-responding, is mature and advanced.
But the reality is that it could affect public trust in the Fire Service if the governance is changed: the Fire Service responds to falls and emergency responses for older people and so sits better with this council than with an enforcement service like the Police; and the Fire Service works closely with Flood Management, Resilience and Emergency Planning at County Hall.
The Government needs to realise that even if this takeover is all right for other counties, it would never do at all in Norfolk, as it would put public safety at risk.