Following new Government legislation, Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne is exploring the possibility of taking over fire services in both East and West Sussex.
She is due to commission a business case on the proposals, but changes to how fire services could be governed in the future have been opposed across the county.
West Sussex County Council launched its ‘Safer in Our Hands’ campaign late last week as the fire and rescue service is heavily integrated into the authority’s structure in areas such as community and road safety, fire prevention, and Trading Standards.
A motion supporting the existing model received cross-party support at a WSCC Full Council meeting last Friday.
Afterwards Louise Goldsmith (Con, Chichester West), leader of WSCC, said: “I’ve always been of the belief that if something is right, you have to fight for it.
“That is why I am really determined to do all I can to keep this excellent service, which provides so much to our residents in so many ways.
“Please support us and put your name to our petition.”
Peter Evans (Con, East Preston and Ferring) said he ‘strongly believed’ residents were best served by a fire and rescue service ‘deeply embedded’ and ‘fully integrated’ with the county council.
His motion encouraged councillors to promote the current model at every opportunity, and included the spirit of a UKIP amendment recognising it was ‘always possible to improve democratic accountability and transparency’.
Sandra James (UKIP, Bourne), leader of the UKIP group, said it was a pity they could not hear from Mrs Bourne directly, who attended the meeting, but suggested that given the vacancies at Sussex Police and the changes to the role of Police and Community Support Officer (PCSO) she had ‘an awful lot on her plate rather than being let loose elsewhere’.
Meanwhile James Walsh (LDem, Littlehampton East), leader of the Lib Dem group, argued that the police should ‘concentrate on improving on what they were set up to do’.
Sue Mullins (Lab, Gossops Green and Ifield East), leader of the Labour group, called on Mrs Bourne to ‘sort out affairs in her own back yard rather than expanding her kingdom’, and while Michael Jones (Lab, Southgate and Crawley Central) opposed putting PCCs in control of fire services, he argued that WSCC could do more to improve openness and transparency.
The Policing and Crime Bill, which is expected to receive Royal Assent later this year, will allow PCCs to take on the functions and duties of fire and rescue authorities where a local case is made.
According to a briefing note from Lee Neale, acting chief fire officer and executive director for communities and public protection, explained that if PCCs did take over fire services, the two would remain operationally distinct, but opportunities for efficiency savings in back-office roles and management would be explored.
In Sussex a strategic reference group, compromised of senior officers from all the interested organisations, has been set up to oversee the development of a business case.
Work on this is due to start next month, with a round of public consultation planned between December and January.
David Barling (Con, Bramber Castle), cabinet member with responsibility for the fire and rescue service, said that although he had nothing but respect for Mrs Bourne, the motion was not about personalities but about governance. He called proposals a ‘massive distraction’ and hailed West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service as ‘one of the most unique models across the country’. However there were several dissenting voices on the Tory benches.
Michael Brown (Con, Fernhurst), who resigned as cabinet member for finance last year, said that public finances were still ‘dire’ and argued that they should not ‘veto savings due to misplaced organisational patriotism’.
He felt it was ‘naive’ to take a position before they had seen a business case, something Pete Bradbury (Con, Cuckfield and Lucastes) agreed with, suggesting councillors were ‘putting the cart before the horse’.
But Andy Petch (Ind, Hassocks and Victoria), a serving firefighter himself in East Sussex, called proposals ‘dangerous and ill thought out’, and felt the perception of firefighters would be damaged if they were not seen as separate to the police force.
He thought the service should be run by people with decades of experience rather than just a one person fire authority.
Mick Clark (UKIP, Saltings) expressed worries about the service being stripped of assets and seeing the number of firefighters reduced if the governance changes went ahead.
He added: “I believe it’s just empire building and is a distraction to our council business.”
Residents can show their support for the campaign by:
- Signing an online petition
- Filling in a form in September’s West Sussex Connections and returning it to the council
For more information visit the county council’s website.
• West Sussex County Council is the fire authority for West Sussex. It is one of 14 fire services managed this way around the country
• West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service was established in 1948
• The cabinet Member for residents services is responsible for making political decisions on the work of the fire and rescue service
• The chief fire officer and his senior management team manage the day to day running of the service
• Since it was established the service’s role has changes significantly with a greater emphasis on prevention
• The service attended 8,566 incidents in West Sussex during 2014/2015
• The fire service is a team of more than 600 staff, including more than 320 operational staff, 220 retained crew, and support staff and community volunteers.
• There are 25 fire stations and a headquarters and technical centre in Chichester.
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