Fire service takeover threat ‘has not gone away’

Michael Jones, Labour county councillor outside Crawley Fire Station
Michael Jones, Labour county councillor outside Crawley Fire Station

A ‘takeover threat’ faced by West Sussex’s fire and rescue service ‘has not gone away’, according to opposition county councillors.

Government proposals allow for Police and Crime Commissioners to taken control of fire services where a local case can be made with the aim of improving accountability.

Sussex PCC Katy Bourne commissioned a business case to look at the possibility, but announced last month the governance of the county’s fire services will remain with East Sussex Fire Authority and West Sussex County Council respectively.

However she would review the decision in two years’ time if the necessary collaboration between the two fire services set out in the review had not taken place.

The decision was welcomed by West Sussex county councillors at a meeting on Friday July 21, but several raised concerns about a possible review.

James Walsh (LDem, Littlehampton East), leader of the Lib Dem group, said: “I do notice the PCC said she will review it in two years’ time so the threat has not gone away.”

Michael Jones (Lab, Southgate and Gossops Green) added: “Does the cabinet member recognise that the takeover threat from the PCC has not gone away, and the press release that went out from this council perhaps painted an optimistic interpretation of her report?”

He suggested a cross-party task and finish group be set up to scrutinise the report and also to look at how to strengthen the council’s case to retain control of the fire service.

But Debbie Kennard (Con, Shoreham North), cabinet member for safer, stronger communities, argued a task and finish group was not needed as all the information was ‘out in the open’.

She added: “We are not going to lie dormant. Ms Bourne says she is going to look at it in two years and in that two years we are going to be proving to her what we have done already and what we are going to continue to do.

“She will be fully appraised of what we are doing and so will you Mr Jones.”

Cllr Kennard described being ‘delighted’ the fire service was staying under the governance of the county council, and voiced the authority’s commitment to collaborating with other emergency services.

She added: “This does not mean we will do nothing as we will continue to develop our fire and rescue service to ensure it is capable of meeting existing and new demands placed upon it.”

David Barling (Con, Bramber Castle) described the review as a ‘sting in the tail’, but added: “I think ultimately we ought to thank the PCC for her moral courage to withdraw her application because in conversations both private and public she made it clear she was wedded to this idea and persuading her of the counter-arguments was no mean feat.”

The business case highlights a number of areas where fire services in East and West Sussex can collaborate to make a potential £7m of efficiency savings over the next decade.

Steve Waight (Con, Goring), who served as Mrs Bourne’s deputy PCC for six months in 2013, said the exercise would only be money wasted if the council ‘did not take on board the points in the report’.

He added: “We only have to fear the two year review if we do not take on board what is in the review.”