FIREFIGHTERS have blasted a report on a potential service merger for lacking detail of benefits, risks and costs.
And the Fire Brigade Union (FBU) for the region says it is outrageous that Cumbria Chief Fire Officer Dominic Harrison has penned the report when some of its proposals could see him extend his control to Northumberland, giving him a pay rise in the process.
The attack comes as Northumberland County Council works with officers in Cumbria on a number of options for the areas’ fire and rescue services, including shared management arrangements and even a merger.
The authorities say they need to find savings and shared working could deliver efficiencies without having a major impact on front-line services.
Five options are on the table, ranging from maintaining the status quo with two separate fire services to setting up a new combined fire authority.
The other proposals are sharing functions, such as learning and development, having just one Chief Fire Officer for the two services, or retaining the individual identities of the fire authorities, but sharing a management team.
Proposals centre on the Cumbria Chief Fire Officer taking the leading position as his Northumberland counterpart Brian Hesler retired in November.
Members of Northumberland County Council’s Executive agreed at a meeting on Monday that further work should be carried out to identify the financial implications of each option.
But FBU Regional Secretary Pete Wilcox says the report should be thrown out now.
“The Cumbria Chief Fire Officer has a simple proposition — give him Northumberland fire service to run and give him more money for doing it. In our view it is blatant and outrageous,” he said.
“No evidence has been produced to substantiate the claims of greater efficiency and value for money.
“Senior managers will be available for less time to serve the people of Northumberland whilst being paid more. The people of Northumberland and their firefighters will not be safer as a result of these proposals and deserve better.
“What is on offer at the end of this is a cut back fire service, with less control and accountability, but the senior managers would be paid more.
“Northumberland County Council must look at this and throw it out before more time and money is wasted.”
However, councillors were told that the report is not finalised and agreed for further investigation to take place.
Chief Executive Steve Stewart said: “This isn’t a final report. A lot of work has been done on this exercise, which has involved a lot of learning for both fire services at low cost to each authority compared to what it might have cost us if we had employed consultants.
“All of this learning comes out of this whatever course of action is taken at the end, but there is a further piece of work that needs to be done.”
A major sticking point of merging the services could be the alignment of council tax as Northumberland has a significantly lower tax base than Cumbria, making sharing out the costs of a combined authority difficult.
Finance officers from the two authorities have been charged with finding a solution to the problem and the matter could be referred to the Government if nothing is resolved.
But the council’s Conservative group says the work is a waste of time and a further report will only cause more unease in the fire service.
Group Leader Peter Jackson said: “The finding of this report is essentially that we need another report. It does not move the debate on in the slightest and can only be described as a waste of time.
“The report notes that the different council tax levels in Northumberland and Cumbria pose a problem to a merger, but this was already obvious without the need for a report that has been months in the making.
“The only consequence of this report is to extend an unnecessary period of uncertainty for the brave men and women who provide this vital service.
“Northumberland Conservatives are determined that we must not jeopardise our first class Fire and Rescue Service by merging it with that of Cumbria.
“Such a move could throw open the gates to reductions in front line service and result in fewer fire stations and fewer firefighters.”
The council declined to comment on the FBU criticism of Mr Harrison’s report.