MP leads Parliamentary debate on Fire Service in Halesowen and Cradley Heath
9th November 2011
James Morris leads a Parliamentary debate on the future of the fire service in Halesowen and Cradley Heath.
James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I thank the Minister for being here to listen and respond to the debate, and for being so open and accessible when I have contacted him about this issue.
I applied for this important debate because, unless the Minister is able to come to our aid or the West Midlands fire and rescue authority can be persuaded to reject the proposals put to it by the West Midlands fire service, the fire service in my constituency is threatened with extremely deep cuts. I will offer a brief summary of how we got to this point.
In 2008, the West Midlands fire service conducted a comprehensive review of its operations to improve its effectiveness and to ensure that resources were best deployed to maximise the level of fire cover across the county. The review recommended that a number of fire stations should be merged, while maintaining the same number of fire engines and crews across the county, to offer a more effective service. Among its proposals, the review recommended that the two fire stations located in my constituency, Halesowen and Cradley Heath, should be merged with a new fire station built at a suitable location between the two towns.
The proposals were put out for consultation at the end of 2008, and a large number of responses were received from different sections of the community. Despite strong opposition to the proposals to replace the two existing fire stations with a new fire station, including a strong campaign mounted by the Fire Brigades Union and submissions from Labour-run Sandwell council, the fire service decided to press ahead with the proposal and the merger was agreed by the fire authority in February 2009.
Although the fire service did not change its plans to merge the two fire stations, it did agree to modify its proposal in one important way following the consultation exercise. The review originally proposed that instead of having one 24-hour pump located at each of the two fire stations, the newly merged fire station should have one 24-hour pump and one 12-hour pump. Following the consultation, that proposal was changed and it was agreed that there should be two 24-hour pumps at the new fire station. That proposal was agreed by the fire authority in February 2009.
After the fire authority’s decision, not much happened. In fact, with regard to the two fire stations in my constituency, nothing happened at all. While the review’s proposals were implemented in other parts of the west midlands, the fire stations in Halesowen and Cradley Heath continued to operate as before. To all intents and purposes, it appeared that the proposal had at the very least been put on the back burner. The first indication that the plans might be back on the table came when the chief fire officer wrote to me last December to lobby me on the local government finance settlement. He said:
“I will do everything possible in order not to close your local fire stations—but at this level of cuts I see some closures as an inevitability.”
The first time that the proposal was publicly resurrected was this summer, when the West Midlands fire service announced that it would press ahead with the decision to merge the two fire stations. However, when that was formally announced, it became clear that the fire service intended to implement only parts of the decision agreed in February 2009. Whereas the 2009 decision explicitly stated that the two fire stations would be replaced by a new fire station that would be built between the two existing stations, the proposals that the fire service now intends to implement could see the fire stations replaced by a rented industrial unit somewhere in the area, or—as seems to be the favoured option—the merged fire station would actually just be Cradley Heath fire station.
I hope that you will not think that I am overly pedantic, Mrs Riordan, if I suggest that closing one fire station and moving the service it provides to another fire station is a very different proposition from building a new fire station to cover both areas and locating it between the two towns. Back in 2009, the fire authority accepted that distinction. In its response to the consultation, the fire authority dismissed suggestions that Cradley Heath could serve the whole area. It said:
“Cradley Heath fire station was built in 1942. It is a cramped old fashioned building with no training facilities and it has been the intention to replace the station for some years. There will be significant costs if the Authority attempts to maintain the station on the present site. The Authority believes that the risks in the areas covered by the existing Cradley Heath and Halesowen fire stations will be better served by having a combined new fire station located between the two existing sites.”
That is as true now as it was in February 2009.
While the physical presence of a fire station in a town is of enormous emotional importance to local residents, and having a fire station locally has significant practical benefits, I recognise that there is some truth in the argument used by the fire service that fire stations do not put out fires—firefighters do. That is why I am even more concerned that, having agreed to preserve two 24-hour pumps in 2009, West Midlands fire service is now proposing that that provision should be halved and the new—or perhaps not so new—merged fire station would have only a single pump to serve the area. That clearly has grave implications for the level of fire cover available in my constituency.
Unlike the 2008 review, the new proposals are not part of a comprehensive assessment of the needs of the county and how best to deploy resources to provide the best possible level of cover in all areas. This summer’s proposals would affect only Halesowen and Cradley Heath, thus reducing the service in my constituency. Clearly, like all services, the West Midlands fire service has had to bear a share of the savings needed to reduce the deficit that the Government inherited. Indeed, because the West Midlands fire service has set a much lower council tax precept than other parts of the country, the overall impact of the local government finance settlement is even greater in the West Midlands than in other metropolitan fire authorities. I urge the Minister to bear that in mind when considering the settlement for future years to ensure that metropolitan fire authorities in general—and the West Midlands in particular—are not forced to make deeper savings than can possibly be afforded without significant front-line cuts.
While there are significant financial pressures on the fire service, it seems that Halesowen and Cradley Heath are expected to carry a disproportionate share of the burden to produce the required savings. As I have said, my constituency is the only area in the county to face a reduction in the number of pumps through these proposals. As I explained earlier, the West Midlands fire authority recognised in 2009 that it was not appropriate to reduce the number of pumps covering the area from two to one and a half, yet the fire service is now proposing that, instead of sharing the burden across a number of stations, the number of pumps in my constituency should be cut from two to just one. It would seem to be basic common sense—something on which my constituents pride themselves—that either the decision to preserve two full-time pumps in 2009 was extraordinarily wasteful or, as local residents suspect, reducing cover to just one single pump represents a serious risk to the local community.
Although the fire service points to the relatively low number of call-outs from the two stations, the local community does not believe that those statistics tell the whole story. Halesowen fire station is close to junction 3 of the M5, and helps to cover call-outs to the motorway network. With the weekend’s tragic accident in Somerset, we saw again just how important it is that our motorways are properly covered by the fire service network.
Halesowen town is changing. The reduction in the number of incidents over recent years is partly the result of effective fire prevention, but is partly due, too, to a decline in the local manufacturing industry. New growth in the town is changing that, however, but although the new hotel, supermarkets, fast-food restaurants and petrol stations provide a vital boost for the local economy, there is no doubt that represent a greater demand for the local fire service that did not exist when the review was conducted in 2008. It therefore seems folly on the part of West Midlands fire service to propose deep cuts to the service in Halesowen precisely when demand could be about to rise.
Although there was significant local disquiet about the 2009 decision, the case could at least be made that it was being done to improve the quality and efficiency of the service—my predecessor broadly accepted that argument. However, the new proposal to cut the number of fire stations and fire engines can only be seen as a reduction in service. There is a great deal of opposition to the proposals in my constituency, bringing together the unlikely alliance of a Conservative Member of Parliament, all local political parties and the Fire Brigades Union. The FBU held a well-supported rally in the town centre, and petitions against the proposals have collected more than 1,000 signatures.
Under the Local Government Act 2010 and the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, fire authorities, as best-value authorities—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
James Morris: As I was saying, under the Local Government Act and the Fire and Rescue Services Act, fire authorities, as best value authorities, have a responsibility to consult the public effectively. They must also ensure that consultations comply with guidance from the Secretary of State. This week’s High Court decision on the Royal Brompton hospital serves as a reminder of the importance of ensuring that public consultations, particularly on service closures, are conducted effectively and fairly.
When the new proposals were announced in the summer, the West Midlands fire service said that as the decision to merge the fire stations had already been agreed, it was necessary to consult only on the staffing changes. The Minister has extensive experience of local government and knows how a competent consultation process should be conducted. It is questionable whether a three-year-old consultation exercise holds much value in the best of circumstances. However, it surely cannot be right to claim that a decision taken on the basis of a three-year-old consultation process remains valid, but then choose selectively to implement only parts of that decision. Either the 2009 decision should have been implemented in its entirety, or there should be a new, comprehensive review of the fire service’s operations, so that a proper judgment can be reached on how resources should be allocated in order that the service complies with its obligations under the national framework. Even the chief fire officer accepts that the consultation has “not been ideal”. But for parliamentary protocols, I would be tempted to use somewhat stronger words.
There is a real threat that unless the Minister can intervene or the fire authority recognises that the proposals before it have not been properly thought through, my constituents will find themselves with a much-reduced service that is radically different from anything on which they have been consulted and that represents a significant risk to the community.
To conclude, I shall ask the Minister three questions. First, can he provide detailed assurances that the process followed by the West Midlands fire service is consistent with its statutory obligations to consult and to minimise risk? Secondly, will he work with the Secretary of State to draw up clear best practice guidance for the minimum standards required of fire authorities’ consultation procedures? Finally, given the shortcomings in the way in which the fire service has consulted the public and other stakeholders—shortcomings recognised by the chief fire officer himself—does the Minister agree that the best course of action would be for the West Midlands fire service to withdraw its proposals, so that a full and comprehensive review can be conducted of how the service’s resources can best be deployed to provide the fire cover that my residents require?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) on securing the debate. I am very glad that he has done so. It is on an issue in which he has taken a very considerable interest and on which he has been campaigning for some time. I am grateful to him for the care that he has taken in providing me and my officials with information about this matter, and for the concern that he has shown for his constituents in seeking a constructive meeting with me, which we had earlier.
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about service provision in the west midlands. There is no doubt that fire stations provide a vital community safety and protection service. Of course, the pumps stationed in them are important, too. Running up the stairs to get back to this debate in time after the Division, I was reminded that they often carry defibrillators as well, because I thought I might need one at one point! Joking apart, these are life-saving, front-line services, and it is right that communities are sensitive about their placement.
Fire and rescue authorities have successfully improved the safety of their local communities in recent years. The number of fire deaths has halved in the past 20 years, and there has also been a fall in the number of fires, so there have been real achievements. That is the background. We recognise the very strong commitment that my hon. Friend has to his local service. However, we have to step back a little and see what the appropriate use is of the Secretary of State’s intervention powers and what the appropriate means are of dealing with the issues of controversy in this case. The Government, like their predecessor, are of the view that fire services are best delivered locally. The Government’s own commitment to localism reinforces that. It involves decisions about local deployment of services generally being taken at local level.
In the case of fire and rescue services, the democratically accountable fire and rescue authorities are the bodies charged with that responsibility. Those authorities are required by the national framework to produce and regularly update an integrated risk management plan, which identifies and assesses local need and sets out plans to mitigate effectively both existing and potential or future risks to communities, because of course those can change as a result of demographics and other matters. It is therefore a very localist process that has been built into the system with the IRMP. Each fire and rescue authority’s IRMP should enable the local authority to decide how best to provide the services. That includes prevention and protection, as well as the service provided by the stations and the placing of the pumps themselves. Strategic and operational matters, such as the manning and hours of operation of stations, and cross-border arrangements can and should be taken into account in considering the IRMP
It is against that background, as I understand it, that West Midlands fire authority has proposed to change the fire cover arrangements in Halesowen and Cradley Heath. I am advised that those proposals have been made in the light of both the assessed risk and the available resources. The matter is of local controversy, as my hon. Friend fairly says. I am aware that the proposals have generated a great deal of debate. In one respect, the debate is a healthy one—the community is obviously concerned about the proposals, and it is speaking up about them and engaging the fire authority. It is much assisted by the work of my hon. Friend, for which I commend him.
I understand that there are concerns about the adequacy and transparency of the consultation on the proposals. The question, however, is whether those concerns justify the use of the Secretary of State’s intervention powers under section 22 of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004. My hon. Friend has recited the criticisms made about the consultation, which relate to the adequacy of the up-to-date assessment and whether using a consultation from some time ago is appropriate.
The intervention powers are designed to deal with the worst cases of systemic or corporate failure of fire authorities. The 2004 Act is framed in that way. Section 21 charges authorities to have regard to the national fire framework in carrying out their functions. The framework expects that there shall be proper consultation on service changes, but it does not specify in detail the means that such a consultation should take. However, we expect fire and rescue authorities to work in partnership with their local communities on such matters.
The powers of intervention under section 22 are designed to deal with failing authorities as opposed to failures of a particular decision process or a decision on a particular proposal. That is analogous to the situation in Haringey with the case of Baby P, where there was such a degree of failure that the system was not operating at all. On the evidence that we have, the situation raised by my hon. Friend does not seem to come into that category. Our policy approach on Government intervention in a failing authority is set out in that way.
We have set out our expectation that, where there are failures with an authority, first of all, the authority, working with its political and professional leadership, will put in place processes to seek improvement. That should normally be the means of dealing with a situation. Where that does not happen, the powers of the Secretary of State under section 22 would be invoked. They are used only for the most serious failings. Under those circumstances, the Secretary of State may give certain directions to an authority.
On what I have heard, that does not seem to be what we, as yet, have here. The authority has been advised by its professional advisers and the chief fire officer. The decision, which has not yet been taken, is one for the members of the fire authority, who are all elected councillors in their area. Like any local authority, a fire and rescue authority must act in Wednesbury reasonableness in its decision making, and it is therefore susceptible to judicial review. Generally, failures of process and of consultation relating to individual decision-making processes tend to be remedied by applications for judicial review rather than by the Secretary of State’s intervention.
Whether such a review is appropriate in this case is not for me to say, because it is not for the Secretary of State or his Ministers to comment on the merits, or otherwise, of a particular application; I am sure that my hon. Friend understands that. I think that that point is reinforced by the reference in his speech to the case of Royal Brompton hospital, in which a judicial review was seen to be the appropriate route. Section 22 of the 2004 Act does not envision that the merits, or otherwise, of an individual decision should normally be of such a magnitude as to trigger the intervention powers. Against that background, an intervention under section 22 does not seem to be appropriate.
It is worth saying a little about the funding of West Midlands fire authority, since my hon. Friend made reference to that. It is fair to say that, like all local authorities, West Midlands fire authority and other fire authorities have had to take their share in our efforts to reduce the deficit. However, taking into account its other sources of funding, such as council tax precepts, reserves and its formula grant, the overall reduction in the spending power of West Midlands fire authority is 5.6% in 2011-12 and 2.2% in 2012-13, which is the same as nine other single purpose fire authorities.
As West Midlands fire authority is one of the largest authorities in cash terms—perhaps the largest outside London—the reduction is a large one. However, it receives the largest protection of all such authorities from the floor damping system, which is part of the formula grant mechanism. It will receive £5.2 million in 2011-12 and £3.58 million in 2012-13, which is more than their needs indicators would allocate if the Secretary of State had not applied the damping. It is also worth noting that West Midlands fire authority receives £27 formula grant per head, compared with the shire average of £20. If anyone were to suggest that funding alone were a necessary trigger for the changes, I would suggest that the figures do not bear that out. That is not my hon. Friend’s contention, but that might be said in other quarters. It is also worth bearing in mind that West Midlands fire authority has benefited from an 82% increase in capital grants on the previous year, which brings it to £2.9 million. How the authority disburses the resources is a matter for the authority, acting on the advice of its chief fire officer.
I am sorry that I am not able to give my hon. Friend all the detailed assurances that he is seeking. We have generally not sought precisely to identify a statutory form of consultation, for the reasons that I have set out—other remedies best apply. As yet, I do not see a situation in which the authority can be said to have acted in breach of its statutory duties under the 2004 Act, because action in accordance with the IRMP, on the face of it, tends to indicate compliance. However, a Minister is not in the best position to judge every detail of the case. As such matters are devolved to local authorities, it is not appropriate for the central Government to advise on the best course of action. They are right to set out the legislative framework, what the remedies are, and the facts, as far as are available, to all those concerned.
That is why I urge my hon. Friend to continue to raise the issues with West Midlands fire authority. I know that he has been in regular contact with the chief officer, the chair of the authority and the other elected members, who include elected members representing the metropolitan borough in his constituency. They are rightly to be held accountable to their electorate for their decisions.
Although the door is always open, I do not want to raise expectations at this stage that the—if I may put it this way—ultimate long stop of statutory intervention power is necessarily the appropriate route in this case. However, I hope that the members of the fire authority and their advisers will listen to my hon. Friend’s carefully and cogently made points. He makes a reasoned case, particularly on some of the issues that he raised about consultation, timing and how up to date the information is. However, as things stand, the matter is for the fire authority and its advisers.