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Dorset Fire and Rescue Service

Volume 471: debated on Wednesday 6 February 2008

This subject is important for my constituents and for the county. My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) cannot be present, because he is down in Dorset, but I am pleased to see my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill), for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) here to support me in today’s debate. That shows, as I am sure that the Minister knows—[Interruption.]

Order. May I ask hon. and right hon. Members to vacate the Chamber, please, while they continue their personal conversations?

The attendance of my hon. Friends shows, as the Minister knows, the strength of feeling among many hon. Members from all parties about the funding settlement. The three-year comprehensive spending review has been announced, and the increases for Dorset fire authority amount to only 1, 0.5 and 1 per cent. over the three years, which compares with the average for fire and rescue authorities of 2.4, 1.4 and 1.4 per cent. There is also a wide variety of grants over the three-year period of between 2 and 18 per cent., so money is going somewhere, but it is certainly not going to Dorset.

The settlement means cuts for Dorset however one looks at it, which is one reason why my colleagues and I went to see the Minister. We were courteously received on 7 December 2007, when we put our case for more funding. Following that, the Minister asked us for more information, which was sent to him, but I understand that the authority has not had an answer yet to one or two points, so I hope that the Minister will address the points that the authority made at that meeting. On Thursday 24 January, the Government confirmed that there would be no change to the grant, so it looks like Dorset is locked in for three tough years. The authority had assumed for its planning purposes 2 per cent. growth over that period, but because it will not receive that funding, the shortfalls will be £278,000 in 2008-09, £437,000 in 2009-10 and £547,000 in 2010-11 compared with its projections.

Dorset is a large and beautiful rural county, but we also have a large urban population, which is centred on the towns of Poole, Bournemouth and Christchurch. Outside Bristol, Dorset comprises the largest conurbation in the south-west, which presents great challenges to the fire and rescue service. Dorset has a number of special features. It is a premier holiday destination, and the major influx of summer visitors increases the population to about 900,000, which increases demands on the fire and rescue service.

Dorset has the second highest percentage of retired people in the country, with 27 per cent. of the Dorset population being of pensionable age, which also presents challenges. The area also has a great deal of house building and housing growth, which inevitably puts larger demands on the fire and rescue service. Elderly people are the least likely to experience a fire, but when they do, it is the most likely category of fire to end in tragedy. There have been several incidents in recent years, and the county is doing much to ensure that smoke alarms and other preventive work is carried out, but the elderly population are a major challenge.

We also have high housing costs. All my colleagues are aware of how high housing costs are in the area, and those costs lead to houses in multiple occupation, which add to the pressure. There are many HMOs in urban areas in particular, and the risk of fire in them is high.

In Dorset, there are many commuters and a great deal of holiday traffic, which provides a major boost to the population, and there is also a high number of thatched properties. When I drive through the beautiful villages in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset, I see many beautiful thatched cottages, but if they catch fire, it is important to get a fire engine there as quickly as possible. The situation creates special challenges. In an earlier life, I was on the fire authority in Wiltshire, and the fire brigade used to show us a video of the big fires from the previous three months, in which thatched cottages always seemed to feature.

We have all enjoyed visiting Dorset, because it is a major centre for political conferences, but there is also major heathland, which must be looked after and where there are sometimes fires. We have Winfrith nuclear research centre, Bournemouth international airport, Wytch Farm BP refinery, and large petroleum depots, including the Ministry of Defence petroleum storage facility at West Moors, which is the largest canned fuel storage depot in the UK. Dorset will also be the second-largest venue for the Olympics, because of the yachting, which will present special challenges to the authority.

Dorset fire authority is not a large authority. It comprises about 800 people only, including firefighters and support staff. There are only 41 front-line fire engines, 34 of which are retained and seven of which are full time. The Minister knows that the efficiency of counties such as Dorset is based on the retained volunteers who allow firefighting to take place at a competitive rate, so with only seven full-time appliances, there is limited scope for the authority to make major savings.

The service, notwithstanding its poor funding, is a good performer, as the comprehensive spending assessment 2005 noted.

On that point, I have tried to raise the issue of performance with the Minister. I have written to him seeking a meeting, but he has not replied to me yet. Dorset’s cost per head means that it is the cheapest fire and rescue service in the country, so does my hon. Friend agree that the cuts are now going too far? With an 85 per cent. retained—voluntary—service, up to six of the 26 fire stations may be forced to shut because of the cuts that we must now endure.

My hon. Friend has made a good point. In 2007-08, in real terms, Dorset fire and rescue service received only £15.04 revenue support grant funding per head of population, compared with the average of just under £19. Of the 24 combined fire authorities, Dorset’s grant is the third lowest. Expenditure per head of population is measured by the BVPI 150—I do not know what that means, but it sounds very impressive—at £30.50, which is the second-lowest figure out of the 48 English fire and rescue services. Dorset’s service provides good value for money.

The Audit Commission has noted that Dorset fire and rescue service has comparatively low budgets and costs per head of population and that it achieves good overall performance. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East has pointed out, it is not a top-heavy service in terms of officers, it has very few full-time stations, and it must cover many hundreds of miles and a major urban area, all of which present major challenges.

Dorset fire and rescue service’s budgets are all zero-based, and the authority is extremely good at ensuring that it gets value for money. I know many members of the authority, and they are proud of what they manage to do, but the settlement will cause major difficulties. The authority has managed to keep council tax increases within 5 per cent., but the settlement provides challenges, and if the Minister is not going to surprise us with additional resources for this year, next year and the year after, there is the other issue of whether the authority will be capped. The authority has taken soundings from among the public, who put the issue of fire safety and cover high up the agenda, and may be willing to pay a bit extra to keep some of the fire stations online and all full-time stations working.

The settlement means that the authority faces a real challenge. The Government are pushing forward a great deal of the fire agenda, much of which requires investment. The fire safety initiatives, which we all welcome, will provide difficulties, and we have already mentioned the problem of crews and how savings can be made. Some 80 per cent. of the service’s budget goes on salaries, and the only way in which one can cut the figures that we have discussed is by cutting manpower, some of which would have to be at the sharp end.

There are seven whole-time fire engines to provide cover largely in Bournemouth and Poole, but also in Weymouth, and many of us fear that the authority will have to look hard at whether to keep them. In the meeting with the Minister, concerns were expressed by other hon. Members who cannot be here today about fire stations in their constituencies. Of course, that has a lot to do with the national framework.

The brigade does other things that are welcome. It works with children who have got themselves into difficulty by focusing them and getting them into fire stations to do particular tasks, which has been greatly welcomed. It also does something else that is to be much commended. There is an organisation called Streetwise in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West, which warns children about the dangers of roads and various other things in order to make things safer for them. The fire brigade funds 14,000 children through the organisation’s safety centre, which is a national asset that many people appreciate. It does what we all ought to do—it prevents accidents involving children.

I know that my hon. Friend is president of the organisation, and I am happy to take his intervention.

I am not its president, but I am a trustee. Streetwise is a unique concept funded by three local authorities—Poole, Bournemouth and Dorset county council—the fire service and the police, together with charitable donations, which I try to help whip up with some recent success. We have built in a large warehouse a miniature village street with shops, houses and even a railway station, for which we managed to get the rail people to give us an engine.

All the local schoolchildren in Dorset go there at a certain age and are taught the dangers that exist in the home, on the street, on the heathland, in railway areas and elsewhere. In particular, they are taught fire and general safety. It is an enormously successful operation and the Government are very much in favour of it and want it to be rolled out all over the country, and we have been helping other authorities to do that. The fire service will not be able to continue its funding for that important organisation, which is to be visited tomorrow by the Princess Royal.

I thank my hon. Friend for that brief and comprehensive explanation of that asset in his constituency, which is an asset for all of us in Dorset. All local Members of Parliament are regularly invited to visit and see what progress is being made. The matter will have to be considered by those who are running Dorset fire and rescue, because money is tight. It is an initiative that is certainly worthy of my hon. Friend’s comments.

I have mentioned the Olympics. There will have to be some investment in advance. I know that the fire service has approached the Olympic delivery organisations for funds, including the police authority and the county council. It is not getting much joy at the moment, but investment needs to be made.

The chief fire officer, Darran Gunter, who has been helpful in providing us with information, has made it clear that when the Olympics come around, he will have responsibility from a safety perspective for all the ocean-going yachts and the activities that take place on the water outside Weymouth. The Dorset fire and rescue service does not own one boat, yet the Government are cutting the budget. How on earth is it supposed to carry out its task?

My hon. Friend has raised an important matter. A water-borne firefighting capacity will need to be developed to deliver the 2012 Olympics in Dorset.

I hope that I have clearly set out the fact that we have an efficient brigade that is run predominantly with retained firemen and that is not highly funded, but that still delivers good performance. It faces real budget challenges in the next three years, which means that worthwhile initiatives may have to be reviewed. We may lose a whole-time fire station in order to make economies. All of us in a large and beautiful rural county are concerned about the future of our fire service. I know that the Minister courteously received us at his Department and has listened carefully to the debate, and I hope that he will dwell on the case that my hon. Friends and I have made.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) not just on securing the debate, but on the measured way in which he has put his points across, not just today but when I met him and many of his colleagues who were able to attend on 18 December; it was an all-party delegation, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners was there.

It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr. Cook. I know that you take the matter seriously with regard to the fire authority in your part of the world. I regularly read your comments on fire service settlements in your local media.

I turn to funding for Dorset fire and rescue service. It will receive grants of £10.8 million in 2008-09, £10.9 million in 2009-10 and £11 million in 2010-11. As the hon. Gentleman said, those are increases of 1.5, 0.5 and 1 per cent. The floor mechanism that protects authorities from low settlements will enable Dorset to benefit in the first two years from upratings of £296,000 and £80,000. The hon. Gentleman will understand that there have been many submissions from around the country about whether the floors should stay where they are or be raised or lowered, but they will benefit Dorset in that respect.

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment, but I was just going to comment on his point about retained firefighters, who are important professional members of our community, not volunteers. It is important to get that point across. I shall also go into a little more detail about the budget increase. It is not a cut; it is an increase. As I have said to the hon. Gentleman, I accept that it is a tight package to deal with in the next three years, although I hope that the three-year settlement will provide some stability.

I am grateful to the Minister, but “tight” is not the right description. “Unworkable” and “wrong” are better descriptions. Will he explain what Dorset could have done to copy Nottinghamshire, which will have an increase of 17 per cent.? What did we do wrong not to get that sort of increase? Why have we been hit with a simple increase of 2.5 per cent., which is completely unworkable, as we have heard?

I shall explain the system that is in place and the measures that are taken into account in the formula. On cuts versus increases and the three-year programme, I shall not revisit the arguments of the past about the effective 45 per cent. increases, from when the Government came to office until 2011, compared with the real-terms cuts before then. I want to make progress and say some positive things to the hon. Member for Poole about how to take matters forward, not least on the Olympics.

I shall give way, but then I need to make a little progress, because it is important that we get into some of the detail.

Absolutely. Will the Minister tell me why a combined fire authority, such as Dorset, gets a much lower percentage increase settlement that one such as his own in Gloucestershire, which is a county authority?

I shall happily come to that when I talk about the formula in a couple of moments.

The authority has benefited in the past from additional resources from the new dimension programme. As a result, it has been provided with an instant response unit and a high-volume pump. The programme is worth about £200 million across the country and is additional to everything else that is happening for our fire and rescue services. That piece of kit has been particularly useful in recent months, as our fire and rescue service meets some of the new challenges that we are likely to see more of, not least flooding.

In addition to the significant investment made through the new dimension programme to equip fire and rescue authorities to deal with major incidents, Dorset has received more than £375,000 in grant funding to support training for and the accommodation of new dimension equipment. We anticipate that there will be further funding of that nature for Dorset.

Dorset fire and rescue service is also set to benefit from Government investment in the Dorset emergency services partnership initiative. That is an excellent example of partnership working between local fire and police authorities. I understand that the project is well into its construction phase. It will provide a police headquarters in Poole, a fire and rescue headquarters and fire station at Poundbury, near Dorchester, and a further fire station at Marshes End. In all, a £57.38 million private finance initiative credit has been allocated by the Government to fund the capital elements of that scheme.

We are providing fire and rescue services with additional funding on top of their allocations of formula grant. Dorset and the other authorities will receive shares of £35 million and £45 million of capital grant in 2009-10 and 2010-11. Obviously, the breakdown of that money has still to be calculated, but it is important to remember that, as tight as the settlement is, capital resources make a real difference on the ground.

In addition to the funding that I have outlined, we are providing about £1 billion in additional investment to assist fire and rescue authorities through national projects such as Firelink and Firecontrol, which will deliver a more resilient control system. They will also deliver a wide area radio network across the fire and rescue service that supports the service in responding to major emergencies, including natural disasters, industrial accidents and terrorist incidents.

I made a commitment to the hon. Member for Poole when we met in December, when he referred specifically to the Olympics. I have asked my chief fire adviser, Sir Ken Knight, to engage with the chief fire officer in Dorset to consider resilience issues in relation to the Olympics. He is quite happy to do that, and I look forward to seeing that engagement soon.

We are committed to funding any net new burdens that arise from the fire and resilience programme. We expect all authorities to continue to make efficiency savings to improve service and provide value for money. Like all public services, the fire and rescue service must meet the expectations of taxpayers and Parliament on continued improvement and value for money. We have set the fire and rescue service a different efficiency savings target from the rest of local government. It is expected to achieve savings of £110 million over the three-year spending review period. That is about 1.6 per cent. a year, compared with 3 per cent. a year for local authorities. The target recognises that the fire and rescue service does not have large administrative functions that can achieve efficiencies through business process re-engineering in the same way that local government can. Dorset fire and rescue authority reports that it achieved cumulative savings of £411,000 in 2005-06 and £985,000 in 2006-07.

The Minister has been generous in allowing Members to intervene, but he still has not answered my basic question about why Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire are receiving increases of 5.8 and 17 per cent. respectively, whereas Dorset, which is the most efficient fire and rescue service per head of population in the country, is getting an increase of only 2.5 per cent.

I was coming to that. The formula takes into consideration population, poverty indices and coastline. I appreciate the comments of the hon. Member for Poole about its being a holiday destination and about the difficulties and challenges attached to that. That consideration has benefited Poole. I have looked at the increases of recent years. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) talks about Gloucestershire, but I am sure that it, like every other authority in the land, would like an even better settlement. In recent years, the Dorset settlement has been 3.75 per cent. in 2004-05, 4.1 per cent. in 2005-06, and 2.7 per cent. in both 2006-07 and 2007-08. Those are all above-inflation increases, but it is a tight settlement.

Will the Minister confirm that the formula is devised on statistics produced by the university of Warwick that are regarded locally as being badly out of date and as not taking into account the cost of living in the conurbation in particular? In the statistics, Dorset is considered as though it is part of the whole south-west, thus distorting the figures that apply to us in the south-east Dorset conurbation.

I understand that Dorset is taken into account as a locality, but, as with every formula, there will be people who approve of some aspects and disapprove of others. It is right and proper for us to review the formula, and later this year, we will start a process, with the Local Government Association, to consider the formula for future years. I am sure that Dorset and other authorities will want to be part of that process.

The recent Audit Commission report on the performance of the fire and rescue service found that all authorities are achieving efficiency savings, but that no service is achieving its top rating in providing value for money to the communities that it serves. Fire services need to address more complex efficiency issues, such as matching resources to risk and demand.

I am pleased that the Minister mentioned the Audit Commission’s report, because it said that Dorset fire and rescue service

“has the highest percentage of indicators in the top quartile nationally”.

It was also the commission’s No. 1 case study for high performance and good customer satisfaction. Is that not worth something?

It is worth a lot in my book, but it is not an aspect that is utilised for the formula. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have had a range of representations from across the country on the best fit for the formula. Some authorities will be happy and some will be less happy with how the cake is cut. The right thing for us to do is to review these matters over the years. We will go into a process of doing that with the LGA, and I am sure that Members of Parliament and their local authorities will want to be involved and will make submissions and representations.

I am pleased that Dorset is making good and sustained progress in delivering positive results for its communities, particularly for people with disabilities and for children and young people. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) mentioned Streetwise; he has mentioned it to me before, and I know that it is a good initiative. We want to change the fire and rescue service, so that it does more of that kind of community work. In recent years, it has undergone a transformation and modernisation. We now have the lowest number of fire deaths since 1958, and there have been massive reductions in house fires in recent years not only in Poole, but right across the country. We must continue to reform the service and to work with our hard-working firefighters, whether full-time or retained, to continue to make those improvements for the long-term.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.