Skip to main content

Fire Safety (Castle Point)

Volume 164: debated on Thursday 21 December 1989

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

9.35 am

Traditionally, the House provides opportunities to draw attention to the need to redress grievances, to right wrongs and to expose administrative blunders. Today, I wish to raise a matter of the utmost importance to the safety of my constituents. I refer to the recent proposal of Essex county council's fire and public protection committee to reduce to one the number of whole-time fire engines in Hadleigh in my constituency of Castle Point, and to relocate the hose-laying lorry to Billericay, more than 10 miles away.

There was no consultation with the district council or with me before this ill-considered proposal was made. Its significance can be grasped at once if I tell the House that in 1933 the Hadleigh fire station had two fire engines to cover 13,000 people. It now has the same number to protect 51,000 people and provides support for surrounding areas with 90,000 people. It is against that background that we must consider the proposal to reduce fire cover for my constituents.

In a report on the subject presented to the county fire and public protection committee in November, it was stated that the average annual number of calls received at Hadleigh in the years 1984 to 1988 was 337. In 1988 the station in fact responded to 796 calls, of which 367 were for the Hadleigh area itself and the rest for surrounding areas. I want to consider that figure of 796 calls last year. Significantly, the total number of calls received up to 17 December this year was 913, and we are not yet at the end of the year. That means that in the last year alone there has been an increase in calls of about 15 per cent. It is not, therefore, as though the number of calls, and, therefore, the scale of the risk, is declining.

Nor are we concerned with risks solely to residential and business property. Hadleigh fire station covers what is described as a "C" risk area, which is mainly residential with some shops. In addition, however, it is responsible for the "C" risk area of Canvey Island, which includes a major liquefied gas installation and other industrial plant classified as major industrial hazards. I should add that Hadleigh is central to an area from Leigh-on-Sea in the east, Benfleet, Thundersley and Basildon in the west, Rayleigh in the north and Canvey Island in the south. It is therefore very well placed to give support to surrounding districts.

You will know, Mr. Speaker how necessary it has become over the past 20 years for me to raise not once, but many times, the serious threat that is posed to my constituents by an excessive concentration on Canvey and in neighbouring Thurrock of stores of liquefied gas, oil and chemicals. That has led to warning after warning of the risks involved to human life and property, and to the holding of numerous and lengthy public inquiries.

One example of the problem is the huge methane gas storage plant holding tens of thousands of tonnes of liquefied gas which, if released by accident, could produce a lethal gas cloud. As the prevailing winds are south-westerly, one can see from the map that such a cloud would blow over a densely populated area where there are tens of thousands of adventitious sources of ignition. Every house has a gas pilot light, people light cigarettes and there are little fires all over the place. One can imagine what would happen if a gas cloud blew across a residential area.

Some hon. Members may recall—and my constituents certainly recall—that the matter became so serious that it drew repeated attention and comment not only in this country, but overseas. It even led to the publication of books by scientists in France and the United States. Some may even recall that in July 1974 I was obliged to raise the matter here in a speech which, I was told later, was the longest made from the Back Benches in this place for almost 150 years. So it was that at last the Government of the day took the matter seriously. Thanks to the vigilance of the newly established Health and Safety Executive and as a result of the recommendations of several lengthy public inquiries, there has been a marked improvement in safety standards and some reduction in the totality of risk.

However, risk remains, and the district council and I are determined that our defences should not be reduced. Against that background, I want to make it plain that any reduction in the fire and rescue cover for Canvey, let alone the rest of the area served by the Hadleigh fire station, is wholly unacceptable to me and to my constituents.

There are several crucial factors that the Essex fire and public protection committee appears to have ignored. Since the second world war, south-east Essex has grown faster than almost any other region. The population of Castle Point alone has leapt from 30,520 in 1950, to 79,300 in 1974, to 85,900 by 1987 and to about 87,000 now. The most vulnerable area in the district is Canvey which had a population of 10,800 in 1950, when I was first elected for the constituency, and now has a population of 36,000. The figures themselves tell the story. One reason for this growth has been the expansion of home ownership in the area. Castle Point can proudly claim to have more home owners as a proportion of its total population than any other district in Britain. Rochford, our next door district which used to be part of my constituency, comes a close second. Such phenomenal growth does not argue for a reduction in fire cover, but rather the reverse.

Any reduction in the number of fire engines at Hadleigh must inevitably mean running the risk of not being able to respond to calls as quickly as is necessary. I understand that the fire research establishment at Boreham Wood has test chambers which demonstrate how fires develop. As we know, there are many ways in which a fire can be started, can develop, and can then engulf and destroy a building if unchecked. In some cases, fumes alone can kill or disable people within a few minutes. In others the fire can be brought quickly under control provided—and only provided—that firemen receive adequate warning. What firemen can never know is just how serious a fire is until they reach it. The earliest possible warning must be given, therefore, combined with the earliest possible response. That means having available the right number of men with the right equipment. Flexibility is the key to effective action. To play around with a cost-cutting exercise against that background is irresponsible and that exercise must not be allowed to prevail.

The last word in the matter rests not with the county fire and public protection committee but with the Home Office. In this connection I draw my hon. Friend's attention to two special considerations which underline the short-sightedness of the proposal to reduce fire cover for my constituency. First, the fire service consists not only of full-time professional officers of high calibre, who are available for emergencies at all times of the day or night, but of dedicated retained personnel who are, in essence, part-time volunteers. I am told that it is increasingly difficult to secure the services of such people.

I hope that my hon. Friend has read the report of the chief fire officer, who makes the point clearly in the conclusion to his recent review of the standards of fire cover. The chief fire officer says:
"Essex is one of the largest and fastest growing counties in the country and any reduction in fire cover should be considered with extreme caution. Regrettably the reliability of Retained personnel has become increasingly unpredictable due to the dormitory nature of the County and a greater reluctance on the part of employers to release their workers for retained duties. This latter situation is due in no small part to the on-going emphasis in the industrial and commercial sectors on productivity and value for money."
No one can read that passage without realising that the chief fire officer is giving a clear warning to the fire authority.

Elsewhere in the report, the chief fire officer says:
"Financially it may seem attractive to reduce the number of appliances to the absolute minimum recommended standards, but there are occasions where peaks of operational workload occur, such as flooding, prolonged dry periods, gales, etc. which are additional to normal fire calls. At these times, the Service's resources are obviously overstretched to an extent that normal response times cannot be met. If pumps are reduced, this will decrease the resources available to deal with the extremely high demands placed on the service at these times."
Those two statements in the chief fire officer's report were ignored by the fire and public protection committee. I must ask whether the Home Office is aware of the situation regarding retained personnel. If that is the position in Essex, surely it is likely to obtain elsewhere in the country. It is a factor that surely must be taken into account before any approval is given to reducing fire cover, in the words of the chief fire officer,
"to the absolute minimum standards",
which would be involved if the proposed reduction in my constituency were ever to be implemented. I seek a firm assurance from my hon. Friend—if not today, later, and certainly before any decision is taken—that such idiocy will not be tolerated in Castle Point or elsewhere.

Secondly, Essex county council should be aware—certainly we in Castle Point are aware—of the growing congestion of our roads. With the best will in the world, that problem is unlikely to improve for some time to come. For the present and for the next two years, major roadworks at the Rayleigh Weir and on the heavily congested A 127 will create acute difficulties, especially in regard to the cover that Hadleigh is required to give to neighbouring Rayleigh, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark), which I once had the honour to represent. The repercussions for Rayleigh of any decision to halve the fire and rescue cover at present provided by Hadleigh are serious. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford told me yesterday that he shares my anxiety and that he will seek to reinforce my plea early in the new year, if common sense does not prevail. The matter is serious for Rayleigh because, among the proposals, is one to close the Rochford fire station—in my hon. Friend's constituency—which also provides cover for Rayleigh.

Rayleigh, however, is covered by the Hadleigh station at all times but has only one retained fire engine. Reduce the cover, and Rayleigh is left exposed. In any emergency, it would have to await the arrival of a fire engine from Hawkwell, Leigh, Southend or Basildon but Rayleigh too, like Castle Point, has a fast-growing population. It is madness to contemplate reducing the cover that Hadleigh currently provides. I repeat, and I am measuring my words carefully, that an unnecessary delay of minutes in the arrival of a fire engine can mean the difference between getting a fire under control and a complete disaster, including loss of lives.

As for the road situation, which is crucial to effective and rapid deployment of fire fighters, I readily admit that plans are afoot for road improvement, but until they are implemented it would be foolhardy in the extreme to reduce existing fire cover and the flexibility that it provides. Canvey Island is particularly vulnerable, not only because of the hazardous installations but because it has only limited road access to the mainland. For years, the islanders have clamoured for an additional access, but we do not yet have it. As the chief fire officer has said, the fire service exists not merely to protect property from fire and to save lives but to help with other emergencies, such as serious accidents on roads, flooding and other sudden and unpredictable disasters.

My constituents remember the 1953 flood disaster, when Canvey Island was inundated and we lost more lives than any other district down the east coast and into the Thames estuary. They remember, too, the repeated warnings at public inquiries of the dangers of fire arid explosion posed by the industrial hazards with which they have to live. Essex county council may think again, but in the meantime I wish to serve warning that any reduction in the fire cover for Canvey and for Castle Point as a whole is unacceptable. Therefore, I hope that when my hon. Friend replies he will say that he and his Department are sensitive to the situation and he will be able to give me an assurance that no such reduction in cover will be approved. It is possible that Essex county council will change its mind. I hope that it will, but the ultimate responsibility rests squarely on my hon. Friend's Department. One final point: I hope that he will concede that, if the population growth in Castle Point and in Essex as a whole has warranted the recent and welcome increase in police strength, the same sensible approach should be taken towards the provision of our fire and rescue services.

9.53 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) both on securing the debate and on raising an important issue of crucial concern to him and his constituents—the provision of an effective fire service. I assure him that I do not underestimate the seriousness with which he speaks. I noted what he said and I am sure that his local fire authority will as well.

It may be helpful if I begin by describing where responsibilities lie in this matter. Under the relevant legislation—the Fire Services Acts 1947 and 1959—it is the duty of the fire authority for the area to secure the services of such a fire bridgade and such equipment as may be necessary to meet efficiently all normal requirements. In this case, the fire authority is the Essex county council. Therefore, it is the responsibility of Essex county council to determine the appropriate number of fire stations, fire appliances and fire fighters for its area, all of which go to make up the fire cover.

Under the legislation, the fire authority is required to make an establishment scheme, which sets out its arrangements to provide fire cover. It has to send the establishment scheme to the Home Office, but the Home Secretary's approval to the scheme is not required. The fire authority is free to increase the fire cover in its area—it does not need the Secretary of State's approval to do that—but it must seek the Secretary of State's approval if it wishes to reduce fire cover in its area. That includes varying the establishment scheme by closing a fire station or reducing the number of appliances, or full or part-time fire fighters.

In determining the fire cover for its area, the county council will, like other fire authorities, have regard to the nationally recommended standards of fire cover which have been in existence since 1936. They contain recommendations about the number of fire appliances that should be sent to fires in particular kinds of areas, and how quickly those appliances should arrive.

There are four main categories of risk. At one end of the scale, for the kind of risk to be found in many of our major city centres, known as 'A' risk, the standards recommend that two appliances should arrive within five minutes and a third within eight minutes. At the other end of the scale, known as 'D' risk and covering much of our rural areas, the standards recommend that one appliance should arrive in no more than 20 minutes.

These standards have been reviewed comparatively recently. They were reviewed by a joint committee of the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Councils for England and Wales and for Scotland, called the joint committee on standards of fire cover. This joint committee included representatives from the Home Departments, the local authority associations, the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers and the Fire Brigades Union, as well as other interested parties. In its report to the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, the joint committee on standards of fire cover recommended that fire authorities should review fire risk categorisation in their area, having regard to nationally recommended standards of fire cover. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary accepted the committee's recommendation and its proposals on appropriate standards of fire cover. In a circular to fire authorities issued in May 1985, the Home Office asked fire authorities to put in hand reviews of fire risk categorisation in their areas.

I understand that the chief fire officer of Essex county fire and rescue service presented his review of standards of fire cover to the fire and public protection committee of his county council in November of this year. I also understand that the report contains some 15 recommendations. The great majority of these recommendations relate to the need to keep under review the status of existing fire stations, particularly where population growth is taking place in the area, or for the relocation of existing stations. One recommendation is to the effect that the possibility of a change in manning the system should be investigated at the station concerned. Further recommendations are that a site in the Stansted area should be purchased for a fire station and that the number of pumps at the station at Dunmow should be increased from one to two. In only two cases is there a recommendation that fire cover should be reduced, but I immediately appreciate that both the stations concerned are in my right hon. Friend's constituency.

Four of the recommendations relate to stations in my right hon. Friend's constituency, at Corringham, Hadleigh, Rochford and Canvey Island—all of which he mentioned. I understand that the chief fire officer has recommended that there should not be any change in standards of fire cover at Corringham, but that its status should be reviewed regularly.

I understand that the chief fire officer has recommended closure of the part-time station at Rochford, whose area can be covered within nationally recommended standards by Southend's whole-time station or by the part-time station at Hawkwell. As to Hadleigh, I believe that the report recommends the removal of one fire appliance and the relocation of a hose-laying lorry to Billericay.

The chief fire officer's report does not propose any change in relation to fire cover in Canvey Island. It does, however, draw attention to the fact that if special risks and other industries on Canvey Island continue to decline, a move from full shift manning to day manning by one of the appliances should be considered. The second appliance is part time and no change is envisaged in the report.

I understand that the fire and public protection committee of Essex county council considered the chief fire officer's report on 16 November, when it accepted all his recommendations subject to local consultations, and he wrote to Her Majesty's inspector of fire services to advise him of that on 20 November.

It will then be a matter for the county council, as the fire authority, to consider the views of its fire and public protection committee and to decide whether to proceed with proposals to close fire stations or to reduce the number of firefighters or fire appliances.

Should the county council decide to propose the closure of fire stations, reductions in operational firefighters, or removal of fire appliances, it must first obtain the approval of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. Such approval would be given only where my right hon. and learned Friend was satisfied, on the professional advice of Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services, that the county council would continue to discharge its statutory obligations to provide an effective fire service and to meet nationally recommended standards of fire cover.

For the moment, this remains a matter for the county council. It is responsible for providing fire cover in the county and it is considering the result of the recent review of fire cover. It must, for the moment, be for the county council to consider its chief fire officer's report, and it would be undesirable for me to comment more fully now on what might come before my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary as an application for his determination. But I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that should the county council seek my right hon. and learned Friend's approval to reduce fire cover in the area he will take careful note of my right hon. Friend's comments this morning.

The Government are committed to maintaining the nationally recommended standards of fire cover and to the maintenance of an effective fire service in all parts of the United Kingdom. The fire service is an organisation of which all who serve in it, at whatever level, can be justifiably proud and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is determined to keep it so. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity of saying that this morning.

Order. I take it that the right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) has the leave of the House to speak again.

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to speak again. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his carefully considered answer. Reading between the lines, I think that I have the assurance that at the end, if all else fails, the Home Office will pay particular attention to what I have said this morning, which reflects the view of many of my constituents.

My hon. Friend said that initial responsibility rests with Essex county council. I know that that is the case and it is most unfortuate that, because of the failure of the fire and public protection committee to appreciate all the factors that obtain in my part of the county, let alone the rest of the county, it has come up with preposterous proposals which cannot stand.

I ask my hon. Friend and his advisers to look again carefully at the chief fire officer's report. I have great confidence, as, I think, all in Essex have, in our chief fire officer. One can see clearly from the report that he is issuing warning after warning to the local government committee which has the responsibility to which my hon. Friend refers. For example, in his introduction he says:
"Essex continues to develop"—
that is a reference to the rapid increase in population that we have sustained over many years—
"and this review aims to provide a long-term strategy designed to enable the Service to achieve and maintain maximum cost-effectiveness."
With respect, the first requirement that the public expect is maximum effectiveness in fire protection. The report goes on:
"The recommendations contained with this Report are subject to consultations with the Home Office and, in the case of any reductions of fire cover, to the approval of the Home Secretary."
That is where the buck stops. Ultimately, the Home Secretary must look at the matter and decide. Will my hon. Friend convey to the Home Secretary the fact that the proposals to which I have referred this morning are simply not acceptable on any criteria that anyone cares to advance?

I do not know what consultations have already taken place between Essex county council and the Home Office. I imagine that there have been none because the Home Office knows the overall picture. It has had to listen many times in the past to hon. Members talking in the House about the dangers to which we are exposed in south-east Essex. Successive Prime Ministers have taken a personal interest in the Canvey situation. There is no escape for the Home Secretary in regard to the decision. The sooner consultations take place and the ridiculous, damaging and irresponsible proposal is withdrawn, the better.

I take comfort from my hon. Friend's measured response. In passing, I congratulate him on his appointment. We have great faith and trust in him. I am sure that, as a result of today's debate, he will have managed to get a grip on the situation my constituency now faces. I beg him to let me know as soon as possible what steps are being taken in his Department to bring some sense into this situation.

Order. I take it that the Minister has the leave of the House to speak again.

With the leave of the House, I shall respond briefly to my right hon. Friend. I understand and have noted the strength of feeling with which he speaks. My right hon. Friend mentioned the buck being passed, but it is definitely with Essex county council at the moment. Therefore, until it makes its proposals my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has no role in the matter. But when proposals are made that he has to consider, I assure my right hon. Friend that he will consider them most carefully along with any comments that have been made.

Sitting suspended at 10.7 am.

On resuming—