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Fire Services (Derbyshire)

Volume 571: debated on Monday 25 November 2013

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

Derbyshire fire and rescue service provides the people of Derbyshire with stellar service and protection, and we depend on it in fire, accident and flood. It works in a county that has huge variances, from the busy city of Derby and the largest town of Chesterfield—considered by many the jewel in Derbyshire’s crown—to other smaller urban bases and large swathes of rural, hilly and remote parts of the Peak district.

Firefighters enjoy the respect and admiration of us all, not just for their untold bravery that sees them run towards burning buildings while the rest of us urgently back away, but because of their amazing life-saving work and the horrors we know they witness during fire, flood and road traffic accidents. Firefighters everywhere are admired, but in Derbyshire, alongside the geographical challenges that face our force, there are many causes for pride. Firefighters in Derbyshire have won awards for the standard of care they provide to citizens, and they have worked to identify individuals at greatest risk and provided additional measures to protect them. Numbers of fires have reduced in recent years due to their tremendously proactive approach to fire prevention, made possible by their outreach work fitting smoke detectors and educating citizens.

However, Derbyshire faces an unusually high level of fire deaths compared with other counties. In 2012-13, 10 people were killed in fires in Derbyshire—one of the highest levels in the country. In Derbyshire there have been five fires in the past three and a half years in which children have died.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way in this important debate. The latest of those fire deaths occurred last week in North Wingfield in North East Derbyshire, and four people tragically lost their lives—Claire James, Josie Leighton, and two young boys, Tyler and Jordan Green. I hope my hon. Friend will not mind me taking the opportunity to express the condolences of the whole House, and sympathy towards the families and the surviving little girl.

Of course, and that entirely reinforces the statistic to which I was alluding.

We know that Derbyshire fire authority—indeed, all services in Derbyshire—are operating in the most extreme and difficult financial circumstances imaginable. The Minister represents a Department that we could argue—in fact, I would argue—has been the most cowardly in the whole Government. Of all the big spending Departments, it is the one that devolves most of its funding, and meanwhile it has taken the largest share of cuts. At a time when other departmental budgets have been squeezed, Department for Communities and Local Government budgets have been crushed, passing tough choices of austerity to council leaders and fire authorities around the country. It has been left to council leaders to decide whether to cut libraries or social care, whether to leave potholes in the road or cut community safety budgets, and for fire chiefs to decide whether to cut back on firefighters or reduce fire prevention work.

I find it nauseating to hear the Secretary of State praised by the Chancellor for agreeing to take on the largest cuts when he faces so few of the tough decisions and leaves others to face the petitions and campaigns against closures and service reductions.

Let us look at what that means for Derbyshire fire authority, which has delivered £3 million in efficiency measures from a programme started in 2010. The authority faced a 40% reduction in funding between 2011 and 2015-16 to a 24/7 service that will have 60 full-time firefighters on duty at any one time. We must scrutinise the changes proposed to the fire service by Derbyshire’s “Fit to respond” document in that appalling context.

The true architects of those cuts are the Minister, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, who has chosen that cuts to the fire authority should outstrip the cuts faced by almost any other public service budget. They could have made different choices, but they chose to reduce the tax bill of £1 million earners and to waste billions with their botched Royal Mail privatisation. Their £3 billion NHS reorganisation has resulted in service levels falling while budgets remain constant. I could go on.

To return to the fire and rescue service, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the document would have more merit if it were based on correct statistics? It mis-estimates the future growth of the south Derbyshire district by at least 6,000 houses and takes no account of future industrial growth, which is why I object to the proposals—they are not based on facts.

The hon. Lady makes a powerful point. It is important that we consider it in the broader context of the report, which has many other flaws that I will describe.

It is important to focus on the context of the choices the Government have made because we hear so often from them that their policies are based on the financial situation they inherited. Policy is all about choices and they will have to answer for theirs when the day comes.

The impact on Derbyshire is stark. The report states that the service will deliver “less for less”. The Derbyshire Fire Brigades Union believes that the

“proposals can in no way give the service to the same level of resilience”

it currently has. Currently, a fire engine will be at a life-risk incident within 10 minutes three quarters of the time. A fire engine will be at an incident deemed as most vulnerable in more than 80% of cases. The plans mean that that will drop to 66%. Last year, the service responded to 565 life-risk incidents. Under the plans, at about a third of such incidents—about 190 incidents—there will not be a fire engine within 10 minutes. Can hon. Members imagine lives in danger and a one in three chance of the engine failing to turn up within 10 minutes?

The campaigns are starting up across Derbyshire to send the strongest message imaginable to the fire authority about the views of people in Derbyshire. In Staveley, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), people are campaigning to save the station, which was built just three years ago. I received an e-mail today from Catherine Atkinson about the campaign that she and people in Long Eaton are waging to halt the closure of their station. People in Chesterfield are mystified and concerned about the plans for our town.

I was a councillor for the Rother ward in Chesterfield in 2009 when the old Whittington Moor fire station was closed and the new one was built at the Donkins roundabout, at a cost of £4.5 million. We were told that it was a better venue for the service, closer to the motorway and to the area that had the most fires. When the Chesterfield retained unit was disbanded, the public were assured that they would still be provided for by the two fire engines at Staveley and back-up from Dronfield and Clay Cross. Under the new plans, Dronfield and Staveley will disappear. To allow the service to respond to those closures, the brand new fire station will be moved a mile back up the road—I am not making this up—to Whittington Moor, precisely where the original station was. The fire authority tells us that it wants to spend £4.3 million replacing the £4.5 million station that still has its first coat of paint. Unsurprisingly, it will take a hit on the resale value. It estimates that the used fire station might get them £1 million, but who wants a used fire station? That might be optimistic.

Where do these plans come from? Council papers show that a variety of tough decisions were ducked by Derbyshire county council in the dying embers of its first Tory administration for 28 years. It left the council sitting on a financial time bomb and left the tough choices until after the election.

Was the consultation always designed to lead to the report? It was certainly ready at the first meeting of the new Derbyshire fire authority and presented as the solution to the funding crisis it faced. The fire authority quotes as its justification the response to the 2012-13 consultation launched by the Conservative fire authority shortly before the historic and huge Labour victory in Derbyshire in 2013. This masterpiece of push polling included the question:

“If the service continues to face restrictions on its budget would you support the principle of matching the service’s resources to the level of risk in each area?”

Unsurprisingly, 80% of the public responded to that extremely leading question by saying yes. That is the sort of question we expect in a Liberal Democrat Focus survey questionnaire, not in the Derbyshire fire authority’s proposals. For the authority to then consider that to be a valid reason to go ahead with these actions is ludicrous. Maybe if it had asked, “Do you support us digging into the reserves to spend £4.3 million on a new station to replace the £4.5 million station we built just four years ago and move back to precisely where we were before we started this nonsense?” we might have got a different response.

Frankly, I do not care where the report came from. I only care where it goes now. It is not just Chesterfield and north Derbyshire that have a major problem. The Ascot Drive fire station had a £3 million refurbishment in March 2012—that will be closed. Buxton fire station was opened in 2011 at a cost of £3.5 million—that will go. Ilkeston was opened in only 2009—that will go. The merger of the three stations in Derby will cost £1 million. It has been stated that the overall outcome of building a new station and closing three will be cost neutral, but at what cost to the service?

My hon. Friend might not be aware that two of the three fire stations earmarked for closure in Derby were built in the past four or five years. I have been petitioning on the streets of Derby with the Fire Brigades Union, and the people of Derby are alarmed about the impact the closures will have on response times. Does my hon. Friend agree that, if the Minister were to give Derbyshire a fair deal, none of these ridiculous cuts, which put the people of Derby at risk, would be necessary and we could have a fire and rescue service to be proud of?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to his knowledge and the tremendous work he has done on this issue.

The publication of the desired locations for new stations enables the current owners of the land to increase the sale price significantly. That will cost the taxpayer yet more cash. If we let the people who sit on the land know that we want to buy it, that will obviously push the price up. Similarly, a fire authority sitting with a used fire station asking, “Who wants to buy it?” will lead to a financial catastrophe.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my bemusement that the Amber Valley proposals will cost £3 million in capital and have an extra running cost every year of £150,000? If the proposals are motivated by a funding problem, that seems to be a strange way to fix it.

I certainly do, and the hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The proposals are financially illogical, while being dangerous to the people in the community. In service terms they are inadequate and will mean 108 fewer full-time firefighters overall, and more reliance on retained firefighters and 30 operational community safety officers.

Where will all the retained firefighters come from? On average, it takes six months from the day of recruitment for retained firefighters to be fully trained and ready to fulfil their role. Working as a retained firefighter requires individuals to be within five minutes of the fire station’s location for 120 hours a week, and the allowance received for that equates to approximately 50p an hour. There are already difficulties in recruiting and the changes will require a significant increase in recruitment. The proposal does not seem to have taken into account the impact on retaining existing retained firefighters or the cost of recruiting replacements.

I have worked with the FBU to assess the impact on existing retained firefighters and the conclusions make sobering reading. For the current 13 staff who work at Duffield fire station, only two can make the five minute “turn in” time for the new proposed station at Milford—the other 11 staff would need to relocate to keep their jobs. None of the Dronfield retained firefighters are able or willing to be within the five-minute perimeter of Eckington fire station. Chapel-en-le-Frith has 11 staff, none of whom can make the “turn in” time. None are willing to relocate nearer to Furness Vale. There is a similar story in New Mills, Alfreton and Ripley. Derbyshire fire service says it is offering a relocation package, but the FBU expects many firefighters not to take it because of family or personal commitments.

In just 2011, the emergency cover review undertaken by Derbyshire fire and rescue service stated that the current fire stations were in the right locations. Why would retained firefighters move their family away from schools and work, when it is not their main job and decisions about the future locations of fire stations seem to change so arbitrarily and so quickly? If implemented, these changes would effectively mean a 10-year recruitment freeze for full-time firefighters—a huge deskilling as a whole generation is told: “No vacancies here”.

The location of stations, appliances and firefighters is crucial to response times. The weight and speed of response are crucial to saving lives and preventing serious injury for the public and firefighters. The fewer fire stations there are, the longer it will take firefighters to attend incidents and the worse the fire will be. There is also the risk of flooding, as we know from the great floods of Chesterfield in 2007, when more than 500 homes were flooded but mercifully no lives were lost. Precisely that sort of extreme weather requires help in numerous places at once over a wide area of the county but it is centred on one service.

On the “Sunday Politics” show, the Prime Minister responded to a copy of the Derbyshire Times showing the scale of cuts facing us in Derbyshire by saying:

“I praise local councils for what they have done so far to make efficiencies without hitting front line services.”

That was, to put it kindly, a factual inexactitude of breathtaking audacity. The front line is being hit—in the police, social services, libraries, Sure Start centres, accident and emergency departments, and most certainly the fire service. No wonder the Conservatives have chosen to delete their “no front-line cuts” pledge from their website—but they will not remove it from the memory of people in Derbyshire so easily. Could anyone claim that the closure of 11 fire stations and the loss of 16 fire engines and 108 full-time firefighters is protecting front-line services? This plan does not just mean millions being spent upfront on the basis of future savings; it does not just mean the millions spent a few years ago going up in smoke; it does not just mean dedicated firefighters being thrown out of work; it does not just mean years of experience lost and thousands spent in recruitment costs; it means people in Derbyshire being less safe tomorrow than they are today.

In his response to a letter from my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire, the chief fire officer admitted that the huge capital outlays were early action and would be funded by raiding the reserves to spend money today to save tomorrow. With the Labour party committed to a fairer funding formula for the fire service, Derbyshire should rethink its plans and Members across the House should send the Minister the strongest possible message that these plans would reduce the service and increase the likelihood of loss of life.

I hesitate to interrupt, because my hon. Friend is making a powerful case and getting many of the statements on the record. This has echoes of the past, because for 18 dire years, when we were in opposition, Tory MPs were happy to cut Derbyshire’s money year after year. This almost has the same feel, except that this story will have a different ending, because they are dealing with the Fire Brigades Union, whose battles I have been involved in since 1977. It has not lost a single one of these battles, and that will continue. We need to use our voice here, and the Minister and his acolytes have to understand that the FBU will not give in. It will fight this battle to the end, and what’s more, it has the majority of the public on its side.

It most certainly does have the majority of the public on its side, because we all know how heroic members of the fire service are and how bravely they work on our behalf. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Misjudged as its proposals are, the blame lies not with Derbyshire fire authority, which is doing its best under difficult circumstances, but with the appalling cuts it is facing from the Government.

In summary, these plans will reduce the service, increase the likelihood of loss of life and make Derbyshire people less safe. They are illogical in financial and service terms. The people of Derbyshire and our heroes in the fire service deserve better than the cuts imposed on them by the Government and better than the vision for our service envisioned by the document. It is time to start again.

Before coming to the crux of the debate, I wish to say a few words about the tragic house fire in North Wingfield, Chesterfield in the early hours of last Wednesday morning, which the hon. Members for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) and for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) mentioned. As noted, it resulted in the tragic deaths of Claire James, Josie Leighton, nine-year-old Tyler Green and 12-year-old Jordan Green. Our heartfelt sympathies are with the family and friends at this most difficult of times, as the hon. Lady said. A joint police and fire investigation into the cause of the fire is currently being conducted.

I would like to commend widely the incredibly important work that fire and rescue authorities such as Derbyshire’s undertake, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, across the country in keeping our local communities safe. In particular, I want to thank Derbyshire fire and rescue authority for the excellent contingency arrangements put in place during the recent strike action.

I have made a clear commitment to ensuring the ongoing effectiveness of front-line fire and rescue services despite the need to tackle the deficit inherited from the last Administration. Reductions for the fire and rescue service have been backloaded, giving protection and more time to make sensible savings without impacting on the quality and breadth of service offered to communities. As we go forward, we will continue to protect fire authorities overall.

Derbyshire fire and rescue has been protected. Overall, its spending power has reduced by 2.9% between 2011 and 2013 and 5.4% in 2013-14, with an even smaller reduction of 3% anticipated for 2014-15—I shall come back to this—in terms of the indicative figures that we published in last year’s settlement. Derbyshire has been proactive in planning its spending not just for the current spending round, but for the 2013 spending round. Its risk management plan stated that, in addition to the £3 million of savings Derbyshire has already delivered, it will find another £4.3 million saving by 2016-17. As the authority says in its plan,

“through sensible forward management and intelligent long-term planning, the Service is in a strong position and is able to proactively meet those challenges ‘head on’ and create sustainable and manageable plans for 2022 and beyond”.

The Minister speaks blithely about savings, but the £4.3 million he talks about means 108 firefighters. Will he be a bit clearer on what he is talking about?

I will go further in a few moments.

Over the last couple of years alone, Derbyshire fire and rescue has managed to move from having reserves of just over £10 million to having in the region of £15.8 million, so it has managed to save a considerable amount of money, which I know it is looking to invest for savings in the future.

Operational front-line matters, such as the deployment of firefighters and the stations themselves, are best assessed at the local level. It is for each fire and rescue authority to determine the operational activities of its fire and rescue service through its integrated risk management plans—something that the community has a chance to look at and have its say on—in such a way that the particular fire and rescue authority is budgeting to risk, not just budgeting to budget. I know that part of Derbyshire’s strategy is a move towards the greater deployment of retained rather than whole-time firefighters. Members will know that this model works well in a number of areas—my own county of Norfolk, for example, has a high proportion of on-call firefighters—and that the move towards greater use of the retained firefighter is the kind of change identified by Sir Ken Knight for fire and rescue authorities to consider to increase their overall efficiency and effectiveness.

It is also important to note that there are other funding streams for fire and rescue authorities. Funding is provided for resilience, for example, including specialist equipment for flooding and other emergencies. In Derbyshire alone, from 2013 through to 2015, approximately half a million pounds of funding has been provided for resilience. Capital grant funding for fire and rescue authorities overall has been significantly increased from £45 million in 2010 to £70 million in 2013 through to 2015. In Derbyshire, the total amount received has been over £2 million. The Government have provided wider funding in support of our belief that there is scope to drive out waste and inefficiency through well-planned efficiency measures, while ensuring that local communities continue to receive an excellent service.

I am still grappling with the Minister’s figures about spending almost £15 million in order to make savings. Will he expand a little on how exactly these savings are going to work by spending more rather than less money?

I am sorry if the hon. Lady has misunderstood my point, which was that despite the claim of the hon. Member for Chesterfield that the fire authority does not have enough money, it has managed to go from having £10 million in reserve to nearly £16 million over the last two years. That is a substantial increase, bearing in mind that the entire budget is only £40 million. My understanding is that Derbyshire wants to invest some of that money to save for the future. That comes back to the local fire authority deciding what it spends itself. It is important to note, as I say, that while some Members are saying that the Derbyshire authority, on a £40 million budget, does not have enough money, it has managed to increase its savings from £10 million to nearly £16 million.

Derbyshire, working with Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, has recently received a £5.4 million grant in support of their joint project for a new resilient call-handling system. That will produce savings of nearly £8 million for the authorities.

Thankfully, as the hon. Gentleman noted, the number of injuries and fatalities caused by fire in general—notwithstanding the recent tragedy—is falling. Thanks to the efforts of fire and rescue authorities, the impact of the Fire Kills campaign and changes in technology, the number of accidental fire deaths has decreased nationally. The number of non-fatal hospital casualties has fallen by more than 54%, and the number of fire attendance call-outs in Derbyshire has fallen by about 15% over the last 10 years. That is a real achievement, in which fire and rescue authorities should take great pride. However, as the tragic fire last week has shown us, they must continue to put prevention and protection first in all that they do. Fire prevention is the front line for them.

Although Members will appreciate that I cannot speculate at this stage about final funding beyond 2013-14, it is clear that all fire and rescue authorities should be seeking to increase efficiency and reform. It is not just a question of managing in accordance with a budget; it is about managing in accordance with risk, and ensuring that taxpayers’ money is spent well and wisely.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) made a powerful case in regard to response times and what would appear to be the inefficient handling of stations in Derbyshire. Does the Minister agree that we should respond to the reduced incidence of fires by seeking new revenue streams to go through the fire stations that we have? What conversations has he had with other Departments about ways in which emergency responses can be co-ordinated among fire and rescue services in Derbyshire and elsewhere?

My hon. Friend has made an interesting point, which tempts me to respond to the Knight review a little earlier than I am ready to do. I can tell him that we are having discussions, and that fire authorities are discussing with other emergency services the possibility of sharing services to increase efficiency. They are also discussing the possibility that children’s centres and other public service organisations could work through fire service centres. Some excellent work is being done on the ground locally.

As I said earlier, fire and rescue authorities should be seeking to increase efficiency and reform to ensure that taxpayers’ hard-earned money is used properly, efficiently and effectively. It is for individual authorities to plan and decide how to make savings locally, in consultation with their local communities.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.