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Cleveland Fire Authority

Volume 523: debated on Friday 11 February 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jeremy Wright.)

I would be grateful if you, Mr Deputy Speaker, would convey my thanks to Mr Speaker and his office for going out of their way to help me secure what I view as a very important debate for my area.

We should be in no doubt that having an appropriate, effective and resilient fire and rescue service to cope with incidents is a vital part of our economy and society. The tragic death in a fire at his home yesterday morning of former England cricketer, Trevor Bailey, shows all too sadly how fire deaths still occur. The thoughts of the House are with his family, especially his wife Greta, who thankfully survived the fire.

At the start of my comments, may I also pay tribute to all those brave firefighters in Cleveland and elsewhere who, day in and day out, week in and week out, leave their families and risk their lives in the pursuit of a safe and fire-free society? It is absolutely right and proper to say that firefighters deserve the public’s full respect, appreciation and support. I also wish to put on record the fact that my hon. Friends the Members for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) had wanted to be here. You will appreciate, Mr Deputy Speaker, that because today is a Friday—always a busy day in constituencies for hon. Members—they are unable to do so.

I know that the Minister in his place on the Treasury Bench is not the Minister with responsibility for fire, but I used to have the same job that he now holds in the Department for Communities and Local Government, so I know from my experience that his diary will be filled by people and organisations coming to see him every single day to say that although they appreciate that cuts and efficiencies have to be made, their particular circumstances warrant special consideration or treatment. In the case of Cleveland fire brigade, I urge the Minister to recognise that this really is a special, unique and nationally significant case.

There are two big factors that massively increase the risk of serious and fatal fires. The first is large concentrations of industry; the second is pockets of social and economic deprivation. The area served by Cleveland fire authority has an abundance of both. My area has the largest concentration of chemical and petro-engineering sites anywhere in Europe. My constituency has a nuclear power station, with the possibility of a replacement to be built in the next few years. There is a gas power station nearby at Wilton. Both facilities generate a significant proportion of the nation’s electricity for the National Grid. As for national infrastructure, the Tees and Hartlepool port authority handles more than 50 million tonnes of cargo a year, making it the largest UK port in tonnage terms. The port is growing in importance in distribution to supermarkets and other businesses, making its continuing operation vital to business continuity for much of the retail sector in the north of England and Scotland. Hundreds of thousands of chemical tanker movements take place through Teesside by road, rail or sea every day. A major fire incident, which involved loss of service for the power stations, the port or the road network in the north-east heading up to Scotland, would ensure significant disruption costing billions of pounds to the national economy. As for control of major accident hazards, or COMAH, sites, Cleveland fire authority has 34 of the highest top-tier risks and three of the lower-tier sites, the biggest number of such sites in the country. The Cleveland fire authority area represents 12% of the COMAH sites in Britain, the biggest concentration in the country.

To put matters into perspective, the biggest fire incident that the country has seen in the post-war era was at Buncefield, where a number of explosions took place in oil storage depots in December 2005. The incident resulted in a massive fire, which engulfed the site, damaged nearby residential and commercial properties and required the evacuation of many homes and businesses from the vicinity. The fire burned for several days and emitted large clouds of black smoke into the atmosphere. I vividly recall travelling down by train from Hartlepool to the House on the day after the explosion and seeing the black smoke from many miles away.

To put the risk facing the Cleveland fire authority area into perspective, a single fuel storage tank facility in my constituency is 100 times larger than the facilities that exploded at Buncefield. The potential of a major fire incident in my constituency or throughout the Cleveland area, although horrific to contemplate, needs to be identified, managed, planned and, crucially, funded, as comprehensively as possible. Teesside has enormous potential in the next few years to become the country’s leader in advanced manufacturing, and to be the national centre of excellence for energy, particularly renewable energy, and in the process industries. The private sector, before pumping billions of pounds of investment into an area or country, will rightly want to assess factors such as skills levels, but will also wish to reassure itself that protection of its investment, in terms of resilience against fire, will be provided. A failure to do so could severely hinder the prospect of economic growth in my region. The Minister should consider that factor.

The second biggest factor in identifying the risk of a major fire incident is social and economic deprivation. A direct correlation exists between the income of a person and whether that person has a higher-than-average exposure to fire risk. Teesside has high levels of unemployment, at about twice the national average, and that jobless total is rising fast as a result of the Government’s economic policy. The most recent index of multiple deprivation measure showed that 40% of all wards within the Cleveland fire authority area fall within the worst 10% nationally. The authority must also deal with the problems of crime and anti-social behaviour. I am not proud to say that the Cleveland area suffers from one of the highest arson rates in the country, with an estimated nine out of 10 fires considered to have been started deliberately.

Those factors—high concentrations of industry, important aspects of vital national infrastructure and social and economic deprivation—mean that Cleveland fire authority must be seen as a special, even unique, case. It is imperative that the area has not only a fire and rescue service that is adequately funded, but one that is no less than the best in the world, in order to manage the risk of major fire incidents. Under the Government, however, that level of support and funding is not forthcoming. Cleveland fire authority is being asked to find disproportionately high cuts. Under the comprehensive spending review, fire resource expenditure will be reduced in real terms, across the country, by about 13%. The revenue support grant, from which Cleveland fire authority receives about two thirds of its total income, will see a cut of about a quarter.

What is particularly disappointing is that Cleveland fire authority is being subjected to much larger cuts than other fire authorities. Throughout the CSR period, Cleveland is being asked to find cuts of about £9 million from a total budget of about £33 million. In the current financial year the fire authority’s budget has risen by 0.5% in cash terms, whereas metropolitan authorities’ budgets have has risen by an average of 1.3% and those of combined fire authorities by an average of 2%. In the financial year 2011-12, only one fire authority in the country will experience a greater reduction in funding, while the funding of a quarter of authorities will actually grow, albeit in cash rather than real terms.

Given the unique nature of my area and the challenges facing Cleveland, which I mentioned earlier—high concentrations of industry, pockets of social and economic deprivation, and the need to maintain business continuity for essential parts of the national infrastructure—how is that fair? Surely a risk factor needs to be included in the calculation of any funding formula for fire authorities. The calculation should take into account the special circumstances in my area, and ensure that the best and most effective risk management can be undertaken.

What is also galling is that the fire authority has already risen to the challenge by making efficiencies, streamlining procedure, and being forward-looking and innovative. This is not a fire authority that is rooted in the past. In the last five years it has taken more than £5 million-worth of costs out of its organisation, thus becoming the second most successful fire authority in terms of efficiency savings per head of the population.

At the same time, the authority’s performance and presence in the community has grown massively. It has passionately embraced the community safety agenda, and has adopted a proactive stance in identifying households at particular risk of fire, such as those of the elderly. Its work in that regard—replacing chip pans and electric blankets and fitting smoke alarms—is increasing exponentially, and has been incredibly successful. It has achieved the greatest reduction in primary fires and accidental dwelling fires in the period since 2001-02, and it has committed the fourth greatest number of hours to proactive fire prevention, being beaten only by three large metropolitan brigades. It is in the community, emphasising fire safety and prevention. However, given the level of the current cuts, such activity—which actually saves money in the long run—will have to stop.

I genuinely fear that the level of these cuts is beginning to compromise public and firefighter safety, and that—given our unique profile, which I mentioned earlier—the ability of Cleveland fire brigade to tackle a major incident on Teesside is being stretched to breaking point. I said earlier that the bigger post-war fire in this country was the one at Buncefield. The second biggest was on Teesside, at the BASF plant in Wilton. In October 1995, 40 appliances from Cleveland fire brigade and 200 firefighters tackled an industrial blaze that took three days to extinguish.

I fear that the cuts imposed on Cleveland fire authority by the Government are compromising Cleveland’s ability to tackle a repeat of the 1995 fire. The fire authority now has only half as many appliances as it did in 1995. With the greatest respect to retained firefighters from the area and from neighbouring Durham and North Yorkshire, who do a fantastic job, they do not have enough specialist technical knowledge to extinguish a complex industrial fire on such a large scale.

I hope that I have made clear to the Minister the special and unique challenges in the face of which Cleveland fire authority must operate. I have outlined my real concern that the cuts being imposed on my local fire service are pushing to the very limits the brigade’s ability and capacity to cope with a major incident. The Minister and his Department should reconsider the cuts that are being required, the nature of the grant and its component parts, and the special circumstances of my area. I ask him to reassure me, to reassure Ian Hayton, the chief fire officer, and—most important of all—to reassure the people and businesses who operate on Teesside that future funding arrangements for Cleveland fire authority will allow the firefighters in my area to do their job safely and effectively.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on securing the debate. Listening to his speech, I thought that we had done a completely unexpected job swap. I hope I will be able to give him some of the reassurances he seeks.

The Government have made a clear commitment to ensuring that the effectiveness of front-line services is protected, but deficit reduction is the No. 1 priority. We are borrowing £400 million a day, or £150 billion this year. Deficit reduction has to be the top priority.

In that context, we gave the fire and rescue service some protection in the recent settlement.

I apologise for intervening so soon. Is the Minister seriously suggesting that deficit reduction takes precedence over fire protection and safety?

Of course it does not. As I said, we gave the fire and rescue service some protection in the recent settlement. Single-purpose fire and rescue authorities will see a reduction in revenue spending power, taking into account grants from central Government and council tax, of 2.2% in 2011-12 and only 0.5% in 2012-13. It is clear that fire and rescue services will need to increase efficiency and deliver reform. However, we have not ignored their special circumstances. I believe that it is a fair settlement for the fire service in what are undoubtedly very challenging times for the public services in general.

We have back-loaded cuts to fire and rescue services to the last two years of the four-year spending review period. That will give fire and rescue authorities the time they need to make the necessary changes without affecting the quality and breadth of the services that they provide. However, there will still be tough choices to be made and I appreciate that Cleveland is not excluded from that. However, we believe that significant savings can be found by fire and rescue services, including through staffing arrangements, sickness management, recruitment freezes, shared services and back-office functions. Other things will be relevant to individual authorities.

The 2011-13 formula grant settlement for Cleveland fire authority was part of what was debated and approved by Parliament on Wednesday. Cleveland's representations were taken into account by the Secretary of State along with all other representations.

On Cleveland's settlement, the reduction in formula grant is 9.5% in 2011-12 and 3.4% in 2012-13, but it is important to consider the other funding that Cleveland receives. All told, the fire and rescue authority will see an overall reduction in spending power of 5.6% in 2011-12 and 2.2% in 2012-13.

The authority has been protected. The hon. Gentleman’s points about deprivation and risk have been taken into account. I want to set out how that has been done and the effect of that on Cleveland.

We have struck a balance in the distribution system, protecting fire and rescue authorities from the largest reductions and allowing a settlement that is closely aligned to needs. Nine other single-purpose fire authorities are experiencing the same size percentage reduction as Cleveland. However, I want the hon. Gentleman clearly to understand that Cleveland has received the largest amount of grant per head among all fire and rescue authorities—£36 per head in 2011-12. I asked officials what would be a comparable authority in terms of size and complexity of risk. They suggested that Cheshire would be such an authority; it has many high-risk sites along the Mersey valley and is approximately of equivalent size. Cheshire’s amount of grant per head is £18, half the amount per head allocated to fire and rescue services in Cleveland. I therefore hope the hon. Gentleman understands that the formula reflects factors such as deprivation, population density and the presence of high-risk sites. Thus, Cleveland receives greater funding because it has a large number of control of major accident hazards—or COMAH—sites, a low council tax base and problems of deprivation and unemployment, to which the hon. Gentleman drew attention. I want to take this opportunity to assure him that central Government are continuing their investment in Cleveland’s fire and rescue services.

Nationally, capital grant funding for the fire service has increased from £45 million to £70 million in the coming year. That is in recognition of the need for fire and rescue authorities to maintain their investment in capital assets, and it provides the potential for making efficiency savings at a time when resource budgets are under greater pressure.

I am grateful to the Minister for mentioning capital. My understanding is that Cleveland fire authority’s private finance initiative bid has been rejected, with no suitable replacement being put in place. Will the Minister advise me on how the authority can best put itself forward for capital schemes, in order to provide efficiencies in the long run?

I will do that shortly, if I may. First, let me put it on the record that in 2011-12 Cleveland will benefit from £1,012,000 in capital grant funding, which represents a funding increase of about 40% on the previous year. The capital allocation to Cleveland will be increased, therefore. We are currently considering a number of options for distributing future years capital funding, and we will consult on the best way to focus capital funding in order to drive efficiencies and reform, which I hope was the point the hon. Gentleman was making.

The hon. Gentleman rightly drew my attention to the private finance initiative. There is a North East Fire and Rescue Authorities—NEFRA—2 PFI project, of which Cleveland is the lead fire authority. That was a pipeline project for which funding has been discontinued. We recognise that there are concerns about that. The Department is working with the NEFRA 2 authorities to consider possible funding alternatives over the spending review period. A Department for Communities and Local Government finance committee will shortly meet to review the funding options for this project, and we hope to have a decision shortly.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a major incident in the Cleveland fire authority area and to the pressures it had put on resources. That is why there is a national resilience programme. I suspect the hon. Gentleman has more background knowledge of that than I have, and he will know that the Government currently make payments to Cleveland and other fire and rescue authorities in recognition of the costs additional to the cost of meeting their local responsibilities, in order to maintain their “new dimension” equipment and the use of the Firelink radio system. Next year, we will pay Cleveland a grant of just over £100,000 in respect of Firelink and some £69,000 in respect of “new dimension” equipment. We need to develop future funding arrangements to make sure national resilience is maintained, but in the meantime we will continue to fund the good work that is being done.

There are a number of major risks within Cleveland and, as with all fire and rescue authorities, Cleveland can rely on the availability of national resilience assets in planning and responding to a significant incident in its area. The hon. Gentleman did not specifically mention the fire control project, but Cleveland is the lead authority on that, and I want to assure him that the Department is open for consultation responses until 8 April this year. I am sure that Cleveland, as the lead authority, will be working with partners to come forward with proposals for alternatives, now that the fire control project has ended.

The way in which the resources available to Cleveland are used is a local matter to be determined by individual authorities, and it is not appropriate for me to comment on them, but I shall discuss one aspect that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, which relates to fire safety. I understand that in the past five years Cleveland has had 16 fire deaths, with an average of three a year. Obviously that is three a year too many, but the level is low compared with the rest of England and I am sure that the good work that the fire and rescue service has been doing has been a major contributor to that. When it decides its spending pattern over the next two years and during the comprehensive spending review period, I hope that it will very much have in mind the fact that its good work through the Fire Kills campaign and other programmes provides both it and the Government with value for money. I hope that it will continue to prioritise that work.

It has been suggested to me that I need not take as long in responding to this debate as I did on the earlier one, so I shall conclude by saying that although I cannot speculate on funding beyond 2012-13 for Cleveland or for anywhere else, it is clear that the fire and rescue service will be required to deliver increased efficiency and reform. It will be for individual fire and rescue authorities to plan and decide how to do that.

I wish to assure the hon. Gentleman that the coalition Government remain completely committed to ensuring that our vital public services are properly funded and properly run, and that they deliver a safe environment for all our citizens.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.