Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Wallace.)
I am very pleased to have this opportunity today to lead a special debate on the future of fire services in Corby and east Northamptonshire. My constituents are extremely concerned about plans drawn up by the current administration at Northamptonshire county council to scrap one of Corby’s two fire engines and cut the firefighter team at the station, which serves Corby and much of east Northamptonshire. The county council is planning reductions in the Northamptonshire fire and rescue service operating budget of £1.6 million over three years—that is equivalent to a cut of 7.5% in the current operating budget. That is additional to cuts in excess of £1 million already implemented under this Government, which resulted in a loss of 31 posts. The strategy for delivering these cuts is simple: cut at Corby; cut an engine; and cut the crew
The council has been running a consultation, which closes today, in which it is not considering cuts to services in any other part of the county—the impact is all on Corby. A one-option consultation is not a consultation at all; it is a public relations exercise. The council’s plans will take out a standard fire appliance, and the associated crew, from Corby and replace this with a new Cobra intervention vehicle crewed by only two firefighters. I have discussed this with Martyn Emberson, head of the fire and rescue service in the county, who has confirmed that these changes would not add any new capability to Corby—Cobra-based technology can already be deployed from the Corby station, as I have seen for myself; would significantly deplete manning levels at the station; and would result in a degradation of the response service locally. The key concern about these changes is that if firefighters arrive on the scene of a major fire, they may face a delay of up to 20 minutes before they can enter the building.
The strength of public opinion against the plans is huge. Thousands of people have signed an online petition organised by local firefighters. Over the past few weeks, more than 200 people have responded to my appeal for input into tonight’s speech. I want the Minister to hear from my constituents in their own words. I hope that she will listen to them and agree to meet me, local firefighters and the county council to see whether we can find an alternative to these current plans.
I appreciate that money is tight for local councils, but the county council has not explored other options. Firefighters tell me that there are other ways of making savings, but the county council is not interested in exploring them.
I want to start by saying that my constituents really appreciate the excellent work of the firefighters who cover Corby and east Northamptonshire. Graham Scotney says:
“Our firefighters do an amazing job from the front line, fire fighting and accident rescue through to fire prevention and education.”
Terry Lester says firefighters
“attend many emergency situations such as road traffic accidents, plane crashes, train crashes, building or scaffolding collapse, all aspects of flooding, chemical spills, releasing people trapped in machinery and rescuing animals.”
Lyn Simnett says simply:
“We must protect them as they protect us.”
Of the county council’s proposals, Anne Brown tells me that they are “bloomin’ terrible”. “Disgusting,” say Bryan Robson, Janet Keeney, Liz McCormick, Dave Holt and Robert Nelson. “Uncannily stupid,” says Ian Murrie. Paul Cross calls the plans “insane”. Kenny Keys, Albin Wallace and Lisa Chong say the plans are a “disgrace”. Tim Wadley feels that the proposed cuts are “putting lives at risk”, a view that is shared by Robert Anderson.
David Laws says the proposal is “ludicrous”. As a Corby resident for more than 60 years, he told me that he objects
“strongly to this ridiculous idea”.
Julie Kelly says fire cover is not a “nice to have” but a resource that is there to save lives. “This is just stupidity”, says Michael Gray. Jean Addison and John Ashman both say that the council’s proposals are “short-sighted”. Christine Larkman says it is
“repulsive to put money before lives.”
Mark Lonnie says:
“Less sometimes really does mean less and that is exactly what’s being offered.”
Ian Foreman is “very troubled” by the plans. Tim Hawkes says that the plans are “incompetent and inept”.
“Ridiculous”, say Tom Cardwell and George Jenkins. Damian Roche agreed, saying:
“It is a ridiculous cut to make that endangers the lives of the residents of Corby and surrounding villages.”
Chris Godbold questions whether the idea has been thought through. I agree with Kim Denham when she says that there has been a “lack of sound judgment”. Shayna Denson said:
“This is crazy. The service should be expanded, not cut.”
“Idiotic”, says Valerie Walker. Keith Jenkinson said:
“It shows a lack of civic responsibility.”
Paul Grey, Niell McAllister and Samantha Timms say the idea is “ludicrous”. Ronald Aston calls it, “scandalous”. Ann Huntington says:
“It's iniquitous, terrible and a travesty.”
It makes no sense, says Robert Burridge. “Terrible”, says Jayne Gardiner. “A crazy idea”, agrees Sally Barlow.
Many commented that the cuts come at a time when Corby is the fastest-growing town in the UK with the highest birth rate in England. Helen Moore mentioned the new development at Priors Hall. Paul Young highlighted the growth of the Oakley Vale area.
Many of my constituents believe that rather than looking to cut Corby’s fire service, we should be talking about how we meet the needs of an expanding population.
Those points are re-enforced by John Walker, Elizabeth Mullen, Madeline Whiteman, Joseph Burlington, Geraldine Oliff, Tony Killem, Kelly Farrar, Irene Hamilton, Jane Parsell, Kirsty Lane, Gail Corby, Anita Few, Ian Duncan and others who contacted me. The others who expressed a view included: Trevor Haynes, James Campbell, Anita Hambly, Simon Neves, Melissa Roberts, Margaret Browning, Linda Bingham, Ann Kieran, Stan Gemmell, Barry Tempest, Sue Clews, David Smith and Wendy Finn. All of them took the time to share their views. Andrew Tyre says that, if anything, we need possibly more cover, not less.
Corby’s firefighters had a busy time over Christmas, with a large fire in the town’s shopping centre, along with a number of other serious incidents. Fortunately there were no fatalities, but my constituents are worried that cuts to the service will put at risk the safety of the public and the firefighters. Bernadette O'Keefe says:
“People's lives will be put at risk.”
Vicky Sidwell says:
“No amount of money saved would be worth risking people’s lives for.”
Helga Ramsay told me that
“the prospect of the time taken to reach a fire being extended is unacceptable.”
David Hamilton says:
“They waffle about it not endangering lives and the service being maintained... I don’t understand how this can be the case”,
and he is right to be sceptical. Debbie Graham thinks that this will put “people’s lives at risk”.
Mel Munton, the manager of one of Hanover’s sheltered schemes in Corby, said:
“It concerns me very much that because of this decision if ever a major fire emergency happened here at Swan Gardens many of my residents could be put in danger, serious danger, many being wheelchair bound or with poor mobility could lose their lives. The twenty minute wait for another fire tender to arrive could be disastrous”.
Michael May says the plans put “costs before essential services”. Paul Balmer says:
“If we saved money but lost ONE life then we would have saved nothing”.
John Holton says that the reason for maintaining cover is simple—“it saves lives”.
Lives will be particularly at risk when there is a large incident because, as Bob Scott points out, there will be fewer firefighters, or when two or more incidents require a fire service response at the same time. Susan Bird asks what will happen when two fires occur at once, and Jeff May asks:
“What happens if the fire service is called to two incidents in Corby at the same time?”
Paul Garvie stresses that a
“fire can take hold and kill in minutes so every second counts”,
and that that “cannot be allowed”.
Danny McAvoy highlights that the plans will leave Corby with only two firefighters to deal with some incidents. Mark Browning raises concerns about the ability of firefighters to respond should more than one fire break out in the town. Sonia Barker says:
“I think it is ridiculous cutting the fire services to just one engine. If there was a very major fire and only one to go out to the call you would have to get more from around the county and that will be losing time and make things even harder”.
This is happening at a time when many of the retained fire engines in nearby towns are frequently not running or not available. Corby’s two engines provide resilience for the whole of north Northamptonshire. Taking that away will put lives and firefighters at risk not only in my constituency, but in neighbouring areas.
The Corby fire service covers many villages surrounding the town. My constituents in rural areas are rightly concerned about the plans. Jacqueline Kay highlights the fact that residents in her village, Gretton, “have not been asked” about how the plans will affect them. Lloyd Caddock asks
“how long will it take to get to villages for serious fires”?
John Melhuish points out that lots of rural areas depend on the Corby fire service, as do areas right across from the border of Lincolnshire and to the border of Cambridgeshire.
Skip Sortland is worried that
“if they can get rid of a second engine in Corby they can then reduce the fire services in others parts of the county just as easy”.
The truth is that they are not even considering what options there are in the rest of the county; this one-option consultation is all focused on Corby.
Darren Whitaker believes the cuts
“will clearly affect the level of protection that Corby and its surrounding villages require and deserve”.
Peter McDonald says:
“Bearing in mind that Corby station provides cover for a vast amount of rural communities in the North East of the county it is not only the people of Corby whose lives are being jeopardised. It’s a disgrace to hoodwink the general public by saying they are replacing an appliance with new high tech fire-fighting equipment”.
Alison Tootle says that this is a
“real problem for Corby and the surrounding villages”,
and she is right.
Many people have commented to me on the impact the plans will have on Corby’s business community. Marian Anderson says:
“A cut in fire service personnel will undermine the attractiveness of Corby as a destination for business and put lives at risk”.
Dave Fox, a resident of east Northamptonshire, highlights the fact that Corby is a highly “commercially productive” sector of the county. Indeed, Corby has been identified as the manufacturing capital of the country, which has to be weighed as a factor in assessing fire risk.
Janice Harper points out that if
“crews are unable to take swift action there is a cost to businesses and in consequence to the community. If businesses are unable to continue it means loss of jobs and damages the local economy”.
William Renwick, who told me that he was responsible for finalising a report about risk in fire services in Northamptonshire in 1985, says that removing
“one pump and replacing it with a questionable vehicle will place the industry and commerce of Corby at risk”.
Robert Thorogood, a business owner in the area, says that
“Corby and district represent a large part of our business infrastructure”,
and that the size of the population and the number of businesses demand its having both pumps.
Robert Leacroft says:
“As the number of industrial units in the area increases the chance of fires involving chemicals, plastics etc. increases and these need to be tackled as fast as possible so reducing the number of engines available is a very backwards step”.
There have been fires in many of our factories in the area. Les Vargerson makes the point:
“It is not just Fires. Corby is surrounded by Arterial Roads where the Fire Brigade is always in attendance due to the number of…accidents. They cannot be in two places at any time with just one unit.”
Tony Banks believes that the proposals show that the Government want to return Britain to the ’30s, with the decimation of public services. Kevin Morrisey asks whether savings could be made elsewhere by the council, which is a good question. Eleanor McEwan sees a different motive. She says that it is
“typical Tory councillors targeting a Labour…town”.
Paul Dickson believes the proposals are
“indicative of the County Council’s treatment of Corby in general. How can they even think this is remotely workable? They are now playing with the lives of Corby residents”.
Ann-Marie Leonard says that this is
“another demonstration of the blind stupidity of the rapidly failing”
Northampton county council. Julie Halliday says:
“I think for a council to even consider this just as a money saving measure shows a lack of care and imagination which the Corby people will fight all the way”.
Tracy Bruce says:
“Reducing a life or death service to a growing population is the politics of the incompetent”.
David Rafferty said that
“this is another Tory action showing that they care more about profit than the ordinary people”.
Lorraine Shaw says:
“As usual with Northants County Council they are targeting Corby residents and have a complete disregard for life and safety”.
Rob Maguire points out that Northamptonshire county council’s own website presents figures for last year
“indicating that Corby Fire Station has the second highest area coverage and incident attended”
whereas Richard Sharman reinforces the point that
“Corby has had two fire crews for the last 50 years”.
Lucille Giola works in a local pharmacy and has spoken to lots of her customers about the plans. She says that she has
“not heard one person agree with the proposals”.
Roger Kinsey asked a good question, which was whether
“a correct procedural risk assessment survey”
has been conducted
“and past statistics…taken into account”.
I very much doubt it and I have seen no evidence of such.
Kelly Tallan shared her experience with me:
“Having had family and friends involved in house fires in Corby, sadly with fatal consequences, I cannot believe this is even being discussed. Any delays to enter a burning building can and will have dangerous results, not only for the people inside but also the firefighters. This town is growing rapidly and we can’t have our emergency services reduced, please please rethink.”
Ian Chapman says:
“The figures being used for the argument to reduce the number of fire engines are already old and with the year on year population increase this data is completely unreliable and there should at the very least be a stay of execution whilst new data is gathered and this time include a factoring for the future growth of Corby.”
I appreciate that the Minister will be unable to respond to all the points from my constituents, but I hope she has taken on board what they think. I am sure that she was in contact with the county council before today, as that is the usual way of preparing for such debates, and I look forward to hearing from her. I hope that she has challenged the council on why it is considering only one option, and I very much hope she has not bought into the spin it is peddling about the proposals.
Before I finish, I want to share three final comments from Corby firefighters. They have insights and experience that we should listen to, but sadly they do not feel valued by the Government, who have failed to find a resolution to their ongoing pensions dispute—a resolution that has been found in other parts of the UK, but not by this Government. The Minister has a chance to show the firefighters that on this issue she is listening and respects their view.
Lois Smith said:
“As a serving firefighter in the town for some twenty plus years, I can tell you that we have rescued numerous people by the skin of their teeth over the years. Downgrading a full appliance that carries four personnel to a smaller appliance with two personnel will ultimately lead to the new appliance turning up to an incident one day and the two person crew not being able to rapidly deploy to the incident and immediately rescue people.”
“In the skin of the teeth cases the outcome would have been very different if we just had this new proposed appliance there at the time”
rather than a proper fire engine.
Gary Mitchell says:
“The proposal to reduce the number of fire fighters (2nd Pump) at Corby Fire Station is shocking. I have had to listen to the County councillors responsible for these cuts trying to explain that the Cobra fire fighting system and a robot can some how take the place of operational fighters, this rhetoric is completely misleading and dangerous to both the public and fire fighters alike. We have had Cobra fire fighting equipment on Corby appliances for 5 years! Expert Firefighters save people’s lives from fire and road traffic collisions”,
not robots. Rob Martin says that the plan
“to replace a properly equipped fire appliance with the proposed van is like replacing a properly equipped ambulance with a first aid box”.
In summary, I believe that there are very important reasons for maintaining the current level of capability at the station. The first is the risk profile of Corby and the surrounding area. Corby still has a range of businesses within its local economy that present particular risks arising from the nature of the processes and materials used. Historically, the industry and commerce in Corby are the reason the risk was rated higher traditionally and Corby always had two engines.
The second reason is the recognition that Corby is growing. This is planned to continue, with the population reaching 100,000 by the end of the next decade. Even accepting the progress made in preventing domestic fires, a town of this size needs to be serviced properly by the fire and rescue service because extra demands will be placed on the service by a growing population. Thirdly, the station supports a very large geographical area beyond the town of Corby, stretching across all the villages up to the county’s borders with Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. There are well-documented difficulties with, for example, the fire station at Oundle, which is rarely able to get its retained crew to be available to be on the run with the fire engine. Maintaining the Corby station’s capability is critical to providing north-eastern Northamptonshire with the assurance that a responsive and adequately crewed service is available to meet fire and rescue needs in this part of my constituency.
I recognise that councils, including Northamptonshire county council, have faced very significant cuts. When this Government were elected, they told us that their cuts would not have an impact on front-line services. We all know that is not true. We have seen the cuts in social care, Sure Start and road maintenance. People have put up with it partly because they were told it was needed to eliminate the deficit, but now they know the truth—the deficit is still there and the debt has gone up because the Government caused our economy to grind to a standstill for four years. The Government have dug a bigger hole and now they are planning cuts that are deeper and ever more dangerous. Taking away Corby’s second engine would become a symbol of this and it would have tragic consequences.
I heard that the Tory parliamentary candidate in Corby is trying to dissociate himself from the fire cuts. He has called on Corby borough council to pick up the tab using the new homes bonus, a cheeky move that conveniently overlooks the fact that Northamptonshire county council receives far more in new homes bonus. More important than that, it has the statutory responsibility to provide a fire service. We do not want a sticking plaster. This is about the security of revenue funding year on year in future years for the second fire engine that we need in Corby to be provided by the county council, with its statutory responsibility.
If the Tories ever want to get anywhere in Corby, they should show local people some respect and stop trying to treat them like fools. People in Corby know where these cuts are coming from, they know exactly who is responsible, and if Tory councillors over at county hall force these fire cuts through, the damaging and potentially fatal consequences will be on their hands. I hope the Minister will do the right thing and use her influence to tell the county council to think again, because there has to be a better way.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) on securing this important debate, to which the excellent Minister with responsibility for fire, resilience and emergencies will respond.
As the hon. Gentleman said, east Northamptonshire relies a lot on the fire service in Corby and we share that fire service. There is a consultation going on so the House should not think that the proposed cuts will definitely happen. Listening to the hon. Gentleman’s speech, the House might have got the impression that Corby would go down from two pumps to one pump if the consultation suggestion were implemented. That is not the case. The consultation suggests that the second pump at Corby is replaced by a Cobra two-man intervention vehicle, so there would still be two pumps there.
I declare an interest. Ever since I was elected in 2005 I have shared a close interest in the fire service in north Northamptonshire, one of the reasons being that when I was fighting to be elected for the first time, the Labour-controlled county council was proposing to close a fire station in my constituency. We fought hard against that and after the general election, when I was elected, we managed to save the fire station. Never under the Conservative-controlled county council has a fire station in Northamptonshire been closed.
I pay my tribute to the men and women in our fire service in Northamptonshire. I also pay tribute to the people who run the fire service in Northamptonshire. They are leading the world with new technology. The Cobra intervention vehicle is new technology. What it does in certain circumstances is a quicker method of saving lives. It will also prevent flashbacks that kill firefighters. There is a significant role for the intervention vehicle. To the Government’s credit, that has been funded entirely by central Government; there has been no cost to the taxpayer in Northamptonshire. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that thousands of new homes are being built in Corby and across east Northamptonshire, and the number of businesses is expanding rapidly. In fact, only today I was with the Transport Secretary at Chowns Mill in my constituency, where we looked at the new roundabout improvements and road improvements that stretch between my constituency and Corby. They are being put in place because of the expansion in the number of houses and businesses. We have also had the Government’s announcement of the Rushden Lakes development—a huge retail and leisure park that will of course result in more fire risk.
The hon. Gentleman was right to read out what his constituents are saying. Since I was first elected, I have run a so-called listening campaign. That is being copied by Tom Pursglove, the excellent Conservative councillor in Corby whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The idea of a listening campaign is to go out and listen to what people are saying, as the hon. Gentleman has done, reflect on it, and then campaign on it. People in Corby and east Northamptonshire clearly want more fire cover for our area; I think he said that one of the people he mentioned said so.
That is why earlier this year Tom Pursglove and I launched our More Fire Cover campaign. Everybody in Corby has had a card from Tom about that and I have distributed leaflets in my constituency. We are arguing for more fire cover, not less. I have met the chief fire officer and the firefighters of green watch in my constituency. I have seen the Cobra intervention vehicle in operation and heard the firefighters praise it, but I do not see why it should be a substitute for one of the pumps at Corby. It should be an additional vehicle that can cover Corby and east Northamptonshire. As the hon. Gentleman said, there was recently a very large fire locally, and of course the two pumps from Corby got there quickly, but would it not have been better if we had had three pumps?
The More Fire Cover campaign that Tom and I have launched is getting widespread support. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the local firemen’s petition at Corby fire station. Tom has been to meet the firefighters there and signed the petition. In political terms, there is no difference between the hon. Gentleman and me in that we want things to improve, but he is wrong because just two pumps are not enough—we need three. The question is how we pay for that. The capital cost of the intervention vehicle has already been paid by the Government, so there is no cost to local taxpayers for that—there are only the running costs.
We need this extra vehicle because of all the new homes and businesses that have been built and created in east Northamptonshire and Corby, so the logic is that the funding should be connected with that expansion. That is exactly what the Government provide through the new homes bonus. This year, Corby borough council will get £2.6 million to spend on infrastructure measures that support the local community. I cannot think of anything more important than fire cover, and only a fraction of that £2.6 million would be spent in providing, in effect, the cost of an additional two firemen.
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman pooh-poohed that idea. I think it was because Corby borough council has massively overspent, by £13 million, on a project involving offices and a library complex. In the past 18 months, it has also spent, bizarrely, a third of a million pounds on temporary staff. We hear about the campaign for no zero-hours contracts, but it is all a bit topsy-turvy at the council. If it put its house in order, part of the £2.6 million could be spent on supporting the two extra firefighters we would need to operate the Cobra intervention vehicle as an additional pump. It would be based at Corby—I am quite happy with that—but serve the whole of east Northamptonshire.
After this debate, I would like the hon. Gentleman to join me and Tom Pursglove in supporting a bipartisan approach to more fire cover in our area.
The hon. Gentleman proposes that the new homes bonus be used to provide resilience across the area. His claim to participate in this debate is that Corby’s fire station serves some of his own constituents and provides resilience in the north of the county. He will certainly accept that it serves my constituents in Oundle, Irthlingborough and Thrapston. Is he recommending to the leader of East Northamptonshire district council that it should make a proportionate contribution, and has he made a similar recommendation to Kettering and Wellingborough councils? What contribution does he expect Northamptonshire county council to make, because it would, of course, be entirely wrong for Corby to fund his proposal to meet the needs of his constituents?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Perhaps he is moving towards my and Tom’s listening campaign. The reason we need this extra resource is the expansion in the number of houses and businesses, mainly in Corby. I think the hon. Gentleman would accept that, without that expansion, we would not be so worried about getting more fire cover.
However, because the issue is being driven by expansion in the borough of Corby, it is right that it should be the borough of Corby that contributes. I say that because the new homes bonus is linked to the number of houses being built. If all those houses were being built in east Northamptonshire, I would argue that east Northamptonshire should contribute, but they are not being built there; as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, they are being built in Corby.
The trouble with the hon. Gentleman’s contribution is that he is purporting to speak about his own area when in actual fact he would much rather talk about Corby, which his constituents find perplexing. He would be welcome to stand for Corby in the future—we would send him packing in the same way as we did the last candidate with whom he trooped around my constituency. We will do the same to the next one. If the hon. Gentleman knew anything about my area, he would know that a significant amount of the expansion is in east Northamptonshire district, not Corby.
All I will say—I do not think the hon. Gentleman will query this—is that a £2.6 million new homes bonus is being given to Corby this year. The great thing about the new homes bonus is that it will increase every year. I think that Northamptonshire county council realises that a new fire station will be needed somewhere in east Northamptonshire in the future, but it is illogical to reduce the fire cover for Corby and east Northamptonshire at this moment in time.
Other ways of saving money are being considered, and this is where I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. For example, the police are moving into Rushden fire station, which the Conservatives fought so hard to keep and Labour wanted to close. It will be a shared facility, which clearly will save money both for the fire service and for the police. It is a little unfair, therefore, to suggest that the fire and rescue service is not looking at other options.
I would be stunned if the hon. Gentleman could find in the county council’s medium-term financial plan—it needs to make a saving of £1.6 million over three years, with a 7.5% reduction each year—a saving in his area that is anything other than the cut to the number of Corby’s fire engines. I cannot find such a saving.
I just gave the specific example of Rushden fire station housing the police. We need to consider doing much more of that sort of thing and look at the whole estate. Coming back to tonight’s topic, the puzzling thing is why the hon. Gentleman, who is usually quite happy to support the expansion of services, does not support the proposal to use just a little of Corby borough council’s new homes bonus money for this purpose.
I will in a moment, but it might help the hon. Gentleman if I finish this point. The reason he does not support the proposal, of course, is that if we have a Labour Government after the next general election, they will abolish the new homes bonus, so Corby will immediately be £2.6 million worse off.
The new homes bonus is simply a partial replacement for the grant to Corby borough council and other local authorities that has been cut. It is only right that we once again link the resources that local authorities have with need by returning the funds back into grant. That is our proposal. Corby will not lose out from that because it has substantial need.
The hon. Gentleman has inferred that I am opposed to the expansion of Corby fire station. He presents all sorts of Aunt Sallies and tries to distract people in my constituency and treat them like fools. They can see that what is really on the table is the proposal to cut one of the two engines. I am fighting to stop that. He is trying to get my constituents to look away, to distract them and to pretend that that is not happening, but before we know it, that cut will have been implemented. I have at no time opposed the expansion of the service. I would be happy to see it expanded, but right now I am fighting the battle in hand with the Tory county council that he supports, which wants to cut my fire engine.
It can hardly be suggested that I support the proposal from the county council. I am doing exactly the opposite. Neither can it be suggested that Tom Pursglove is somehow supporting the Tory line, when he has signed the petition for the firefighters and is running a campaign for more fire cover in Corby. I just do not see the logic in the hon. Gentleman’s argument.
Order. We started with an Adjournment debate about the Corby fire service, which was allocated to the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford). We are moving very wide of the mark. We are referring to people who are not Members of this House and to all sorts of propositions, whereas the Adjournment debate should be addressed to the Minister so that she can give the answer. Mr Sawford and Mr Bone, perhaps we could move back to the central proposition and allow the Minister to answer. You may, by all means, intervene on the Minister for clarity, but I do not think that we are making much progress.
May I apologise unreservedly, Madam Deputy Speaker? I should not have taken the bait from the intervention of the hon. Member for Corby. Of course, he brought up Tom Pursglove in his opening remarks, so I thought I ought to set the record straight.
Perhaps I may end my speech, before we listen to the excellent fire Minister, on a point of consensus. I would love the hon. Gentleman to stand up and support my campaign for more fire cover.
Order. Mr Bone, that really is enough. The convention of the House is that this is an Adjournment debate that Mr Sawford is addressing to the Minister. You are perfectly entitled to take part, Mr Bone, but this is not an inquisition of Mr Sawford. I would therefore like you to allow the Minister to respond to the important points that have been made. I think that you had concluded.
I am very grateful that we have a lot more time than we normally have for Adjournment debates because of the collapse of the other business.
Finally, may I say to the Minister that I appreciate all the efforts the Department is making to find solutions to problems, including what she did with the firefighters’ pension scheme? I thought that that was Parliament at its best. Perhaps we can work towards a unified approach to solve what is a really important problem in my constituency and the surrounding areas. On that note—I hope it is one of harmony—I will conclude.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) on securing this important debate, not least because it affords me the opportunity to congratulate Northamptonshire fire and rescue authority on its tremendous success in keeping its local community safe. Since the start of this Parliament, there has been a 34% reduction in all fire incidents in Northamptonshire, and no fire fatalities at all were reported last year. That is good news for people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and everyone involved in those achievements deserves praise.
However, we cannot afford to be complacent. Fire and rescue authorities must continue to put prevention and protection first in all that they do. We 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 previous Administration.
It is clear that Northamptonshire fire and rescue service shares that commitment. Its recently published community protection plan reviews the strong progress that it has made towards delivering its strategic targets and objectives, as set out in its 2013 to 2017 integrated risk management plan. It has set out clearly how it has successfully delivered on those original plans, which were to collaborate with other blue light responders and develop the potential for an integrated emergency service across the county, in order to provide better local services. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) pointed out, it is a world leader in that work: to keep the public safe through partnerships with other agencies; to continue to work to reduce the cost of false alarms, which has fallen by more than 50% since 2008; and to ensure the ongoing safety of its firefighters through the provision of enhanced training facilities and methods, and the adoption of new capabilities, technology and equipment.
Although there have been reductions in funding over recent years, fire and rescue authorities have been given some important protection across the spending review period. Funding reductions have been back-loaded to give fire authorities more time to make sensible and considered savings without their having an impact on the quality of services offered to communities. As Northamptonshire is a county fire authority, its budget allocation is a matter for Northamptonshire county council. Overall, the county’s spending power was reduced by only 1.6% in this financial year, and the provisional settlement for the next financial year will see its spending power increase. In addition, the county has received £488,000 of funding for the forthcoming financial year for specialist equipment to improve resilience for flooding and other emergencies.
We are supporting fire and rescue authorities to transform the delivery of services by promoting greater efficiency, either independently or in collaboration with other emergency service partners. As I announced in October, 37 fire and rescue authorities have been awarded a proportion of the £75 million fire transformation fund for next year, and Northamptonshire is one of those authorities.
The county council has been proactive in planning its spending over the current round, setting out its proposals in a new community protection plan. That document has been subject to full consultation with the local community.
The Minister is talking about additional funds. Does she understand why my constituents and I will be perplexed when she suggests that the Government have given Northamptonshire county council and the fire service additional funds, since the chief fire officer and the county council’s cabinet member for finance have come to me to say that they are cutting the engine because they do not have any money and have to make cuts? To me, those two things do not add up. Will the Minister explain?
I would be very happy to clarify things for the hon. Gentleman, because some of the things that he said in his speech do not add up. I am happy to address the points that his constituents have made, but I also want to set out the facts, because it is incredibly important that whatever decisions people take—I am not taking them—the public are aware of the facts. We do not want to scaremonger and make people concerned about things that will not come to pass. All Members realise how important fire and rescue services are to our communities, so we need to ensure that we deal with the facts of the case.
The county council’s consultation closed today, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman has put in a submission and made his views known. Part of Northamptonshire’s proposed strategy is to move towards a new firefighting system called Cobra.
For the forthcoming financial year the authority’s spending power will increase, and I have mentioned the fund of almost half a million pounds that has been provided for resilience and flooding. The only action I can take, and the only part within my remit as Minister—quite rightly, these are devolved issues—is the fire transformation funding that has funded the vehicles I am about to describe. I am not minded to withdraw that funding. It is close to £2.3 million, and I would rather Corby have that money. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to argue to the contrary—I am sure he will not.
I will make some progress and then I will be happy to take an intervention.
Cobra is a new technology that utilises high-pressure water and can be used in conjunction with an abrasive compound to cut through materials releasing high-pressure water droplets into a fire compartment—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has seen that in action, but I understand that Corby already has two of those appliances. Northamptonshire fire authority is a proactive user of that technology, which it believes will enable it to develop and deliver a new strategic approach to firefighting. The authority already uses those vehicles. It currently has two, and it wants to increase those to seven. The vehicles have been used in rural areas, covering places where retained duty staff availability is insufficient to allow early intervention at incidents, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and they will move around as necessary.
We fully support a forward-looking strategic approach, and have awarded Northamptonshire £2.3 million, of which £1.5 million is for the purchase of five new Cobra-enabled vehicles. That award was the result of a rigorous, fair and consistent evaluation process, and the bid was assessed against a range of criteria set out in published guidance to meet the fund’s transformation objectives. It was in competition with other fire authorities and the authority was awarded that money because we had confidence in the bid and the difference it would make to the hon. Gentleman’s community.
I will make some progress. The authority is clear that the new Cobra vehicles will enhance—not compromise, as was suggested—the flexibility of response within Corby and the north of the county. It will maintain the current two-appliance capability, and although it will facilitate a reduction in whole-time staff, those reductions will be met only through natural wastage rather than any redundancies. I can conclude only that the hon. Gentleman does not support the benefits that Cobra will bring and would like me to withdraw the fire transformation fund funding, but I can see no reason to do so.
I will make some progress. Operational matters such as the introduction of the deployment of fire appliances and crews are best assessed and planned at local level. It is not for the Government to interfere with the judgments of fire and rescue authorities, or to micro-manage the services provided from central Government. We expect and trust chief fire officers and elected Members to listen to their communities and make the right operational decisions for them. That local voice is critical, which is why I support fire and rescue authorities and oppose Labour’s plans to abolish them and move everything to the centre.
Whether or not the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is the right approach, it is clear that the proposal is not to reduce cover but is about seeking a quicker response in rural areas where there are problems such as those he mentioned. It should be made clear to his constituents that this issue does not warrant scaremongering.
It is very simple. May I just explain to the Minister the maths of this? There are currently two Cobra facilities at Corby. They sit on two proper pumps. Four firefighters man those pumps. We are talking about going down to one proper pump with four firefighters and a van with this equipment on the back of it. That is not—the chief fire officer readily acknowledges this—an enhancement of what is available at Corby. It may be that in some other areas of the county there will be some additional service from the seven vehicles—in other areas. In Corby, however, in my area there is a clear reduction in the service. To suggest otherwise—well, the public will not believe it for a moment and they do not believe the county council.
The point I am making is that it is not as the hon. Gentleman set out in his speech. There are operational reasons why this has been put forward as a proposal. However, I readily admit that local people may disagree with that. There is a consultation which closed today and clearly Corby is an expanding town. This is not just about what the fire service has to deal with today; this is about planning for, and making provision for, the future.
In those circumstances I can see why Corby might want more from its local fire services. I am very aware of the More Fire Cover campaign, which, although it is content with using new technology and the Cobra vehicles and welcomes that new technology, wishes to retain the second traditional appliance for Corby. The campaign, led by Councillor Pursglove, has put forward a way that that could be funded without the need to increase council tax. I give credit to all residents in Corby and Northamptonshire who have made their views known.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I seek your advice? This is an Adjournment debate. The Minister is now talking to proposals I am not familiar with. They were not part of my speech and are not part of the county council’s proposals. They are not really the matter in hand. I just wonder whether it is in order for the Minister to continue in that way.
The Minister is responsible for what she says at the Dispatch Box. The normal procedure is to answer the hon. Member, and the points raised by other hon. Members who have participated in the debate, and I am sure the Minister will bear that in mind.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Local leaders will make better decisions with the benefit of the ideas and input from the residents of Corby and the wider area. The idea of using the new homes bonus to fund the cost of a third appliance may not have been considered before, but it is encouraging to see sensible, pragmatic ideas being proposed. There may be other options, but the two we have been discussing today are an improvement on the status quo.
In conclusion, I will not, as the hon. Gentleman might have wanted me to, withdraw the funding for Cobra vehicles. I am very glad that he has put the record straight on that. The service asked for that funding. We were impressed with the project and the new technology, and I think that Corby will be better off for that £2.3 million. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that if he agrees with the objectives of the More Fire Cover campaign, he might review his opposition to the new homes bonus and support it as a way of providing extra funding, from whichever authority it comes out. I also encourage him, if he values the local voice, as his innovative crowdsourcing debate seems to imply, to hold in high regard fire and rescue authorities and that local accountability that really does put local people in charge and in the driving seat for such local decisions. He might wish to reconsider his wish to centralise fire and rescue authorities. The consultation closed today, and it is not for me to decide what should happen.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I appeal for your advice. There have been repeated claims about my position on a range of matters. For example, it has been suggested that I would not support the expansion of Corby fire service—of course I would; and that I do not welcome additional funds for Corby fire service—of course I do. These claims have been made time and again. It might be orderly—this is where I seek your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker—but it certainly does not seem to be very parliamentary.
As I have said, the Minister is responsible for her own words at the Dispatch Box, and the hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity to correct the record. I remind the Minister that when she is standing at the Dispatch Box, she is answering for her responsibilities as a Minister. Any other observations we can hear at another time.
This is an incredibly important matter, as the start of the debate clearly outlined. There are serious concerns in Corby about some of the messages put out about the consultation, and it is important to set the record straight. There are many people with many different perspectives in the community putting forward solutions and ideas about how they can best protect their community. It is important to put that on the record and to state that there is no complacency either from the professional firefighting staff or the elected members of the authority, who take their duties seriously and by all accounts have a good track record on protecting their communities, as the statistics bear out.
There are clear choices and different visions emerging. It is a choice between protecting the local voice through fire and rescue authorities, and abolishing them and centralising decisions; between councillors who think it is important in an expanding town that fire stations be protected, and those who want to close them; between proposals to improve services and perhaps have a third appliance on the run, and the status quo; between using the new homes bonus, and not having that funding option; and above all else, between careful, thoughtful local leadership, coming up with solutions to these serious matters, and scaremongering and an abdication of responsibility. I trust the people of Corby to decide which vision for their future is best for them.
Question put and agreed to.