Brigade merger plans under fire

PLANS to merge fire services in Northumberland and Cumbria under a joint command have come under fire from the county’s Conservatives, who say they will vote against the move.

At Monday’s meeting of Northumberland County Council’s Executive, members resolved to undertake the evaluation to determine the possibility of a merger between the two services, but Conservative county councillors have announced that they will oppose any plans that might lead to the closure of local fire stations.

Coun Peter Jackson, leader of Northumberland Conservatives, said: “Here in Northumberland we have one of the best and most efficient fire brigades in the country. A merger with Cumbria would only make significant savings through a rationalisation of the service, which means the closure of rural fire stations.

“The stations in Ponteland and Haydon Bridge have already been earmarked for closure, and the closure of further stations in north Northumberland has not been ruled out. These closures would be a terrible risk with the lives and property of local residents.

“The Fire Brigades Union is right to brand this plan as ludicrous. People in Morpeth, Glendale, Rothbury and elsewhere have seen our local service at its very best, responding to the floods of 2008 and 2009 and fighting the wave of arson in rural areas in 2010.

“The Lib Dems should not be pursuing a plan that threatens one of our best performing and most vital services.

“There is no sense in merging with another large rural authority, as the area to be covered would be vast. If a merger must be pursued as a way of saving money, and we remain to be convinced on this, it would make more sense to look towards the Tyne and Wear Brigade. But the next move must be an independent study into the pros and cons of all options for possible mergers.”

At the Executive meeting, chief executive Steve Stewart was keen to reinforce that this was merely the preparatory work needed to see if it should be considered.

“It’s not proposing a merged service but it’s proposing a piece of feasibility work,” he said.

“It’s quite a quick piece of work because it will become apparent quite quickly if there’s a business reason for doing it.”

He also underlined the similarities between the two fire services including geography, operations and reliance on retained staff.

And members’ attention was drawn to the 25 per cent cut to the fire formula grant across the UK.

Coun Alan Thompson, executive member for public protection, warned that the long-term savings need to outweigh the capital expenses incurred in a move to share services.

Coun Ian Lindley, executive member for neighbourhood services, praised the service currently provided.

“The business case has to be absolutely crystal so this flag-flier for the county is preserved,” he added.

The service is the custodian of some the region’s key infrastructure such as Newcastle Airport, the A1 and the East Coast Mainline. Northumberland firefighters attend somewhere between 200 and 300 road traffic accidents on the A1 each year.