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09.11.15

Councillors, not PCCs, should keep oversight of fire services, says LGA

Transferring control of firefighters from councillors to police and crime commissioners (PCCs) would “divert valuable resources” away from the sector’s important community work, the LGA has claimed.

The association said Whitehall’s proposals to hand over control of firefighters to the bodies already tasked with overseeing police forces would be detrimental to a sector that is “already achieving so much”.

Fire services – currently steered by Fire and Rescue Authorities (FRAs) made up of elected councillors – are responsible for almost 700,000 annual home safety visits to vulnerable older people living on their own. This preventative measure is partly praised for helping reduce pressure on the NHS.

But the LGA said transferring oversight and strategic powers to PCCs would undermine this “trusting and good” community engagement, diverting resources to take governance proposals forward instead.

The association also opposed any measures that would allow PCCS to “force through” leadership changes without a local mandate from councils and the wider public. It argued this could essentially hamper growing collaborations between firefighters, the NHS and Public Health England – all of whom recently signed a consensus to work together in developing joint strategies.

Cllr Jeremy Hilton, chair of the LGA’s fire services management committee, said: “There is huge potential for firefighters to play a wider and more important role in their communities.

“Firefighters have proven just how effective they can be by halving the numbers of fires over the last decade through both their swift response to emergencies and their fantastic prevention work.”

Fire authorities added that proposals to pass a new statutory duty on all three emergency services to work together are unnecessary, as firefighters already jointly respond to incidents with the ambulance service and cooperate closely with the police.

“Firefighters are already achieving so much and we do not want to hinder this with unhelpful, unnecessary and restrictive legislation. The fire service is not a failing service and does not need to be messed around with.

“The next Spending Review could make a real impact on the FRA’s ability to prevent, protect and respond more effectively and government needs to carefully consider their role,” Hilton continued.

And in its consultation response, the LGA said that putting a duty to cooperate is likely to provide a “constraint that stifles innovation and broader collaboration”. Creating ‘transformation funds’ is more likely to incentivise effective partnerships, it argued.

389 HART (60)Firefighters and ambulance team working together.

But despite its appeal, analysis published by the National Audit Office last week revealed that, although fire authorities have coped well with significant funding cuts since 2010, many will be forced to cut jobs and services and face the prospect of firefighter strikes.

The auditor also detected the first signs of low-level stress in the sector, with several teams raising concerns about their capacity to respond to major incidents as a result of slashed budgets.

And while the LGA claimed that shifting power to PCCs would not strengthen accountability as FRAs are already democratically elected bodies, the auditor found that councillors lack technical independent support to produce data on response standards.

The DCLG also does not have an external inspection regime of these authorities, meaning it is almost entirely reliant on councillors and fire chiefs to scrutinise services. As a result, accountability and outcome evidence is, in reality, very limited.

(Top image c. Darren Felon)

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