Sussex Tories ‘seem to have gone to war’ over proposals to transfer fire and rescue authorities to Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs).
The Government is consulting on further collaboration between emergency services and part of this could see PCCs put in charge of fire service functions where a local case is made.
However West Sussex County Council has ‘strongly rejected’ the idea that a governance model based on the PCC is the best way to ‘govern an effective, efficient and collaborative service’.
Michael Jones, a Labour county councillor, said: “The Sussex Tories seem to have gone to war on each other over this issue. The PCC says she wants a ‘conversation’ on this, but it is clear from the motion that the West Sussex Tories don’t. It is a barely veiled criticism of their own Government’s policy.
“We don’t have confidence that the PCC can protect and enhance the West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, but having seen the millions of pounds that the council has cut from it over the past few years, losing firefighters and appliances across the county, we don’t have very much confidence in WSCC either.
“Our concern is losing direct local control would not only make things worse, but there would be even less local scrutiny of any further cuts that the PCC may then decide to make. After all, the current members of the Police and Crime Panel are not there for their expertise on the fire service, their focus is on crime and the police.”
Katy Bourne, Conservative Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner, was asked whether she was in favour of proposals at a Police and Crime Panel meeting last Friday (October 9).
In response Mrs Bourne explained how she had discussed it with East Sussex’s chief fire officer and said it was a ‘conversation’ she would have with West Sussex too.
She added: “For me the absolute aim has got to be what is in the public interest because we are all public services delivering a service to the public, and if this means better and more efficient services to the public it’s something that I would welcome a conversation around.”
Pushed by Mr Jones on whether she supported proposals or not, Mrs Bourne said she ‘welcomed a conversation around it’, but as there were 17 fire authority members in East Sussex it was not a decision that could be made unilaterally.
David Barling, WSCC’s cabinet member for residents’ services, attended an event in London hosted by the Department for Communities and Local Government on the consultation in September.
Its official response to the consultation reads: “The process set out by the Government appears to enable the delivery of the Government’s intention, but seems to be heavily biased in favour of a PCC-based governance model, whereas there are other ways of delivering a fire and rescue service within a county council that deliver more effective outcomes and collaboration.
“Despite the conclusions of the Home Affairs Select Committee, it seems far from certain that the public is convinced of the benefits of directly elected PCCs in the role for which they were intended, let alone for a wider remit encompassing all emergency services.”
It states that running a police service is ‘greatly different’ from running a fire service.
In a briefing note published ahead of this Friday’s WSCC meeting Sean Ruth, West Sussex’s chief fire officer and executive director for communities and public protection at WSCC, explained how the service has been focusing on prevention and protection alongside its blue-light rescue operation.
He said that the fire and rescue service’s work has integrated itself with the county council’s work on its priorities around start of life, later life, and the economy.
While he acknowledged that the model was ‘fairly unusual around the country’ he felt it was ‘already delivering a number of tangible outcomes’, with the intention and scope to achieve even more.
A notice of motion, submitted by Conservative councillor Heidi Brunsdon, states that West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service is ‘integral’ to the council’s work on community safety and resilience, and argues that WSCC is confident the model ‘provides tangible benefits for the communities it serves’.
Measures in the Government’s consultation paper include enabling PCCs to take on the responsibilities of fire and rescue authorities, and allowing them to create a single employer for police and fire staff to save on back office functions. Where this does not happen PCCs could gain representation on their local fire authorities.
However changes would not alter the distinction between operational policing and firefighting, and central Government funding would remain separate.
Last month Mike Penning, minister for policing, crime, criminal justice and victims, said: “It simply doesn’t make sense for emergency services to have different premises, different back offices and different IT systems when their work is so closely related and they often share the same boundaries.
“Directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners are accountable to the people they serve and uniquely placed to improve the way the emergency services are delivered at a local level, and we propose enabling them to take responsibility for the fire and rescue service where a local case is made.
“As a former firefighter and now minister for policing, I know from first-hand experience how well the police and fire service can work together. We believe that better joint working can strengthen the emergency services and deliver significant savings and benefits for the public.
“This is about smarter working, reducing the cost of back office functions and freeing up the time of front-line staff.”
The consultation closes on October 23.
To comment visit the Government’s website.
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