Merger ‘only option’ for future of fire services

A FULL-BLOWN merger is the only viable option for a deal between Northumberland and Cumbria fire services, a top council official has said.

Talks have been taking place since January on how fire and rescue services in the counties can work together and a progress report to Northumberland County Council’s Executive earlier this month outlined five possible options.

They ranged from keeping the two services entirely separate to combining them into one new organisation, while less radical proposals included sharing management staff or discrete functions, such as community safety policy.

But now Northumberland County Council Chief Executive Steve Stewart has said the only worthwhile suggestion is a total merger.

“It is likely that the only option that is likely in the longer term to have a chance of delivering serious efficiencies is the full combination,” he said.

“There would be little advantage to either authority in pursuing anything other than a full combination order. If that is not possible we need to look at other strategies for the fire service to save money over the next two or three years.”

He set out his position to the Communities and Place Scrutiny Committee on Tuesday as members were told Northumberland’s fire service needs to slash £8million from its budgets by 2015 due to a 25 per cent cut in Government funding.

Mr Stewart said the biggest obstacle to a merger is council tax equalisation as Northumberland has a significantly lower tax base than Cumbria, making sharing out the costs difficult.

The authorities could ask the Government to allow a transition period to bring the levels together and officials are due to meet in the next two weeks for further discussions.

But Ponteland councillor Peter Jackson called for an end to the process.

“We have just been told that if we don’t have a combination order with Cumbria there is no other option so we need to start looking elsewhere.

“If there was something viable and real on the table I would have a look at it, but this isn’t it,” he said.

“We have got to put our own house in order. We have a valued service and an effective service in Northumberland. We just need to try to get the best value for money out of that. It seems that is the lesson we have to learn.

“We have to do our own thing and cut our cloth to suit the finance that is available.”

He added: “The savings are £8million over a four-year period so it is £2million a year. We have already off-set some of that, we have cut £1.1million so if we roll that over four years we are saving £4.4million. We are more than half way there already.”

Committee Chairman Glen Sanderson, of Chevington with Longhorsley, said: “The view that some members have, and a lot of serving officers and residents have, is that this is a service that deals with arson, barn fires and rescues people from cars, amongst other things.

“At the moment we have a lot of demoralised staff and a lot of members who are getting serious complaints from the public that this shouldn’t be a matter to even be considered.”

However, Mr Stewart said this year’s £1.1million saving was not recurring and it will be harder to make cuts each subsequent year so all options must be explored.

“We have a very good service, but it has to save about £8million over the lifetime of the Comprehensive Spending Review. If someone can tell me how we are going to do that without exploring these options I would like to hear it,” he said.

And Council Leader Jeff Reid warned that lives will be put at risk if radical action is not taken.

“If our fire service is so inefficient that it is dead easy to take £8million out of it then we should hang our heads in shame,” he said. “We are going to have to deliver the service far more radically than we do now. We can’t continue in the way it is being done.

“We knew this was going to be difficult, but if we don’t explore these things and start thinking out of the box then we are going to be in a very serious position in 2015 where we haven’t got the capability that an authority needs to save people’s lives.

“No one has died, no one has been trapped in a car longer than they ought to be because of the way the service is being delivered now, but in 2015 if we have not come up with a better way of delivering the service, if we haven’t found that £8million, people will not be complaining about the service, we will be being sued because people will have died because we haven’t had the money in the system to deliver the service.”

However, he said the merger would have to save at least £1million for him to recommend it to the council.

Coun Anne Dale suggested that the council should investigate working with the Tyne and Wear fire authority.

But while Mr Stewart said it would make sense to look locally for some options, such as shared service delivery in some functions, Coun Reid said there would be an even greater difference in council tax bases for a full merger.

The committee requested an updated report by the end of June.