Sparks flying in rowover future of Shropshire fire service

The battle over the future of the fire service continues to rage with the county’s fire authority members lining up to pour cold water on plans from the region’s police and crime commissioner.

The latest development in the bid from John Campion, West Mercia Police and Crime Commissioner, to take over the governance of Shropshire, Hereford, and Worcestershire fire services, has seen the county’s fire officials back a report that rubbished the Conservative politician’s proposals.

It is the latest step in what has becoming a protracted row over the future of the service.

John Campion

In the wake of the report Mr Campion has issued a robust defence of his plans and risked pouring more petrol on the fire by branding the fire-service-commissioned report as a “hatchet job”.

The latest shots were fired following the publication of a consultancy report requested by the fire service to examine Mr Campion’s business case.

The report warns that the plan, predicted to save as much as £4 million by Mr Campion, would mean lost jobs and a loss of local accountability.

Chair of the authority and councillor for Newport Eric Carter has been fiercely against move from the outset.

Eric Carter

Speaking after Tuesday’s extraordinary meeting held to discuss the report he described Mr Campion’s claims that the merger would bring more accountability to the fire service as “laughable”, and said the current system does not need fixing.

He said: “It has been quite clear that people aren’t happy with a lack of local accountability. His claim of greater accountability is laughable, as is the idea of having one man run it all from a room in Worcestershire.

“For one person to take on the role of 42 people and do that efficiently is in my opinion nonsense.

“It would take away the fact that the 42 people representing the fire service are elected, and they were elected by a bigger majority than the police and crime commissioner.”

Despite the criticism Mr Campion has insisted that his proposals will provide a better service for the public.

Speaking when he revealed the plans he said: “Our fire and rescue services are hard-working, professional organisations that deliver a good service to our communities. However, their full potential for effectiveness and efficiency is harder to achieve within current governance and operational models. Limited collaboration with each other and the police force has gone on up to now, but this must be strengthened, deepened and accelerated if all our services are to deliver the best results they are capable of.

“I want to build on the good foundations set by our fire and rescue authorities to deliver modern, innovative fire and rescue services that lead the way nationally; whether that is in terms of emergency responses, back-office support functions or value to the taxpayer. However well these areas are performing now, it is only through proper and meaningful integration with each other that we can fully unlock the potential benefits.”

Mr Campion’s plans have been greeted with considerable scepticism from the fire authorities as well as Shropshire and Telford & Wrekin Council.

A recent Shropshire Star poll also saw 78 per cent of respondents indicating that they want the governance of the services to remain separate.

The latest report also suggests that the fire service would link better with the ambulance service, rather than the police, going as far as to claim that no other Western country has united the services in the same manner.

The consultants’ report raises considerable concern over how the proposed £4 million of cuts will be achieved.

It states that it does not believe the savings can be made without a “significant headcount reduction”.

Mr Campion’s proposal has been put forward as a result of new legislation which allows police and crime commissioners to take over fire services in a bid for a more ‘joined up approach’.

When first revealing the plans Mr Campion said he hoped to build on ‘good foundations set by the fire and rescue authorities.’

However speaking at this week’s meeting public figures and councillors on Shropshire Fire Authority again reiterated their belief that the commissioner is “empire building.

Councillor for Ercall, Miles Hosken said: “This is a big public con and it is empire building.

“This is a despicable attempt to bring together two public services that are poles apart.

“The public are in disarray over it, they don’t understand it and don’t want it.”

Wem Councillor Pauline Dee issued a rallying cry for the authority to remain strong in its opposition to the plans.

She said: “This is the police piggy backing on the good work of the fire service over many, many years.

“People have great respect for the fire service that other people just do not have.

“It is not about what John Campion or the Home Office want it is about what local people want.

“We need to be strong on this and there needs to be no messing.”

After the consultants’ report was made public Mr Campion pulled no punches and claimed the fire authority had “misunderstood” his business case.

He described it as a “hatchet job”, and said its quality was compromised by the short time-scale over which it was produced.

Mr Campion now has four weeks to consider the report before submitting a full business case to the Home Office.

Councillor Nigel Hartin, Lib Dem leader on Shropshire Council, has called for the consultation period to be extended and said that the timeframe for the submission of a business case to government is too short.

Councillors have also cited growing pressures in the police force and fire service in the wake of terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, and the Grenfell Tower fire as another reason for the governance of the organisations to remain separate.

The debate clearly still has some way to run, with both Shropshire Council and Telford & Wrekin Council yet to submit official responses to the proposals.

However one thing is certain and that is that both the fire service and Mr Campion are standing their ground. Both are firm in their positions in what is best for the fire service, albeit there is little agreement between the two.

For the majority of the public the row is academic and what matters to them is that if they need the fire service then they arrive at the right place with the right equipment as quickly as possible.