Blurring the red and blue

Source: PSE Aug/Sep 16

Theresa May’s plans for police and crime commissioners (PCCs) to take on the duties and responsibilities of fire and rescue authorities (FRAs) have not been without controversy. But what have localities been doing to ensure any decision made is beneficial? Paul Bullen, acting director for governance, operations and delivery at the Office of Northamptonshire PCC, speaks to PSE.

Prime minister Theresa May first floated the idea of a PCC takeover of fire and rescue services (FRS) late last year, then as home secretary, as part of plans to increase local accountability and transparency – as well as spur tighter collaboration between emergency services. 

She has been largely criticised since then. In December, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union Matt Wrack hit back at what he called May’s “stupid and dangerous proposals”, which could damage public trust in firefighters, hike FRS costs and “sweep away vital democratic safeguards”. Across readings in the House of Commons and the Lords, MPs and peers raised similar concerns, ultimately warning that “forced mergers” between PCCs and FRAs could not be a “smokescreen for further deep cuts” to either service.

But the Police and Crime Bill has already been laid out and seems firmly on track to receive royal assent around the turn of this calendar year, according to Paul Bullen, acting director for governance, operations and delivery at the Office of Northamptonshire PCC. Until then, PCCs around the country – around 40 in England and Wales – have been drafting up a business case to present to May once the legislation is enacted.

 The business case 

At local level, every PCC office must make the case for one of four potential options based on what demonstrates the biggest community benefits – such as keeping the structure as is; including the PCC in the FRA; taking over FRS but keeping fire and rescue and police as distinct organisations; and what the Bill describes as a ‘single employer’, or a full merger of both services. 

In Northamptonshire, this work has largely been driven by a four-way partnership between police, the PCC’s office, the county council and the FRA, after which they expect to consult with the public on preliminary decisions. 

“Ideally, the home secretary would then be looking for all of those things to line up in one direction, I suppose, so that there is a common agreement locally for the PCC to then put the business case to the home secretary for approval or ratification,” Bullen said. “The PCC can submit a business case without local approval, but it would be looked on less advantageously.” 

Asked if governance models would become fragmented nationally if each PCC goes down an opposing route, Bullen argued that differences are “inevitable” and not unheard of in other services – including FRS, which are frequently not coterminous and therefore make up a “patchwork quilt” across the country. 

Skills and training 

He also acknowledged there might be an impact on training and skills, but baseline criteria will remain the same: evaluating new entrants based on the core competencies needed to work in emergency services in general, such as good people skills. A police officer who joins doesn’t already know how to be a firearms officer, for example; they learn that over time with specialist training. Bullen said this would remain the same.

“It’s never going to stop there being specialist people who know how to use a firehose or to cut people out of a car or fire a gun – that will always be necessary. It’s about [defining] the general competency that an emergency services person needs,” he said. “Over time, we’d see a blurring, therefore, of the red and blue, to say that, actually, someone who turns up to a road traffic collision needs these skills, and whether they are a firefighter or a police officer doesn’t really matter. But it will be a long-term process.” 

Turning back the clock? 

Another major criticism thrown at May by fire unions is that she risks “turning the clock back 140 years” with PCC  takeover plans, because this combined model was last used  in Britain in the 1870s. 

But Bullen hit back at this view, arguing that the world has changed greatly since then – and with it has come a greater shift towards focusing on prevention. In Northamptonshire, for example, FRAs have managed to prevent around two-thirds of fires: a positive step, but one that also leaves FRS with more time on their hands. 

“Ultimately, it’s about trying to find the right model for the future, for the 21st century, and therefore relying on saying it’s been 140 years since it was tried and didn’t work doesn’t really hold any weight now,” he added, “because the world is just in a different place.”

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