Retired firefighter Tony Morris spoke in favour of a more than 3,000-strong petition calling for West Sussex County Council to reverse £1.6m cuts to services at a County Hall meeting on Friday (December 11).
He claimed that the service was in ‘crisis’ with response times rising by more than ten per cent in 2014/15, while the changes were also ‘undermining’ essential training and prevention work.
But David Barling, cabinet member for residents’ services, asked councillors to distinguish between facts and myths, and called Mr Morris’ speech the ‘biggest piece of misinformation’ he had heard in the chamber.
Mr Morris said the issue of fire service cuts had been ‘dogged by false claims and half truths’, and described the idea that less calls to the fire services meant you needed less fire engines and firefighters a ‘fraud’.
He added: “The result being that councillors and the public were misled into believing cuts could be achieved without damaging the service.”
He said that previously West Sussex had a fire service equal of any in the country, but it was now a ‘sorry shadow of its former self’.
Andy Petch (Ind, Hassocks and Victoria) put forward a proposal that would have seen the council set up a task and finish group to look at the evidence following public concern at cuts to the fire service, and then made any recommendations to the cabinet member.
As a firefighter in Brighton and Hove, he raised concerns about the availability of retained pumps in West Sussex, and the knock-on impact this was having when crews were responding to incidents in neighbouring areas.
His proposal was defeated by 41 votes to 20 with one abstention.
Mr Barling (Con, Bramber Castle) described how they had ‘upgunned’ preventative visits to homes and introduced the Crewing Optimisation Group to increase fire availability as part of their Future Fire & Rescue (FFR) transformation programme, which started in April.
He told members he had learned a lot about the ‘luxury of opposition’ during the debate, and described how response times had actually fallen since they introduced FFR. He asked members not to throw away the benefits on a piece of ‘grandstanding’ that had ‘caused nothing but fear in the minds of 3,000 petitioners’.
He added: “I do not think a task and finish group is the answer and I can tell you the service prides itself on its openness. They have been unfairly castigated for being overly secretive but from my experience that is not true.”
Janet Duncton (Con, Petworth), deputy to the cabinet member, described changes as a ‘success’ and added: “We are not closed-minded, we are happy with the situation at the moment and will continue with it until we have given it a good run and see what a success it will be.”
But James Walsh (LDem, Littlehampton East), leader of the Lib Dem group, called attacks on Mr Morris ‘unwarranted’, and said the number of available fire engines was consistently below 30, while he had received ‘reliable reports’ of instances where there were less than 20 engines available across West Sussex.
Sue Mullins (Lab, Gossops Green and Ifield East) backed Mr Petch’s proposal and said it was ‘only prudent and sensible to take stock’, while Sandra James (UKIP, Bourne) felt it was ‘not adequate’ that performance information was not made regularly available to councillors and members of the public, and added: “It is not good enough that information has to be dragged out of the fire service.”
Meanwhile Michael Jones (Lab, Southgate and Crawley Central) said: “It’s clear that these cuts are having a serious impact on rural parts of the county.”
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