Perhaps it was inevitable. It took the formal announcement of deficit reduction measures within the Fire Service in December before the realisation that the Fire and Rescue Service was not immune to the swingeing budget cuts that affected the rest of the public sector. One of the features of this once-in-a-generation (hopefully) programme of measures aimed at reducing the overall public sector budget is that this while we are all in it together, some services are in it a lot deeper than others. Some see this as political payback for 13 years of a Labour government that favoured enhanced funding for the larger authorities. Relatively large investment has taken place within more urbanised areas including the Metropolitan FRA's while some shires had suffered from what they perceive as victimisation. Depending on the perspective adopted, the imbalance of cuts can be viewed as political payback as funding drifts back to the shires which have a predominance of coalition MPs and district councils at the expense of the predominantly Labour areas in the more densely populated regions and city regions. With some authorities having to make net reductions of over 5 per cent in the first year while others enjoy a net increase there is bound to be a divisive friction between many authorities.
The range of savings to be made, vary with the funding structure of the authority. One metropolitan authority receives 68 per cent of its funding from central government grants, whereas some combined fire authorities receive as little as 35 per cent. What this meant is that a cut of 25 per cent of 68 per cent here is significantly greater than 25 per cent of 35 per cent. The increasingly complex grant allocation formula, (26 pages long and due for revision by 2013/2014) means that arguments can be made over the interpretation of rules and guidance. The fact that there are so many types of fire authority - Metropolitan, combined, Shire, London Fire and emergency planning authority, not forgetting the devolved administrations - means that the allocation of funding remains confused, complicated, not easily understood and controversial. Perhaps there is another way.
The Fire and Rescue Service is a national response capability, mainly deployed locally. Most command and internal structures of services are broadly the same. The funding is centrally controlled either through the grant mechanism or indirectly by setting capping limits. There is a universally applied training standard. There are however, over forty different sets of standing orders and ways of doing many activities. Has the time come to truly consider the creation of a single service - a national Fire and Rescue Service with nationally set standards of attendance and operating procedures? I can hear the howls of derision and horror starting already! But there are benefits to a single service covering a country. The Scottish Government appear to think that a national model is an appropriate governance model and the Fire Brigades' Union would like a national attendance time standard. The FBU in Scotland also approves the single service model.
The advantages are numerous and have been identified in the past. Smaller FRSs often have high senior officer to staff ratios. The Department for Communities and Local Government have already started encouraging FRSs to share officer resources. Given the relative infrequency of Gold incidents and size of some services, fewer officers covering a wider area could start to reduce some of the overhead costs of services. Similarly, there are still areas where the nearest resources are not mobilised to an incident just because it lays the wrong side of an administrative boundary - another service's area. The back office savings of a nationalised service would also be significant as research and development, production of guidance documents and a whole raft of other functions, currently produced by each brigade, replicated over forty times, could be rationalised. Another advantage in these predatory times is that the organisational mass means that it would be difficult for another organisation, such as the ambulance service to merge (or takeover) the FRS given that CFOA have recently opened up that Pandora's box. For the 'forgotten' part of the service - Fire Safety - a national service would have the size to justify an effective and robust legislative enforcement service supported by legal specialists, rather than the case now where many services do not enforce as well as they believe they should due to the cost of specialist legal support.
A national fire service is, of course, an anathema to almost everyone within the
UKFRS and the arguments are well rehearsed. One of the old chestnuts is that the FRS is a part of local government and that a national structure would not be able to respond to the needs of local, disparate communities. Many larger authorities, both in terms of geography and population, already have diverse communities and needs - comparing Kingston on Thames with Whitechapel or Leicester with Melton Mowbray is like comparing chalk with cheese. The diversity of communities and the need for tailored approaches to their needs already exist in current FRS structures.
Another myth perpetuated by opponents of larger structures is that understanding of communities can only be achieved by having locally organised and managed services. Fire stations and community safety offices will still be located within a community and working for local communities with local authority partners, irrespective of the scale of the organisation. The delivery would still be personalised in the same way that a post office delivers a national and local service or how Tescos meets local needs on a national basis.
So, let us imagine that the Government accepted the proposition and decided to bulldoze the notion of a National Fire Service into reality in much the same way it is dealing with the current National Health Service changes. What could it look like and how could it operate? For a start it would need to have a home. The long mooted return of the service to the Home Office would appear to be appropriate for a national service and appear to be a more comfortable fit than with the other departments the service has been domiciled within for the last decade or so. The geographical delineations between strategic units of the service could be in any one of a number of ways but not on a 'regional' basis, given that the 'R' word has now been excised from the Government lexicon. The wartime National Fire Service 'force' areas, or a variation thereof, would not be far from what could be a good working model and would also meet some of the benchmarks from the Holroyd model from the 1970s.
Given that the form of the service follows the function of the service, defining the roles of the service requires that a determination of what is the rationale for the attendance times of the response element. As pointed out by the Audit Commission sixteen years ago, attendance times determine the crewing and costs of a service. Attendance times and weight of attack were designed originally to protect property and not necessarily individual lives, hence the greater attendances where potential property losses were greater. Current standards, based largely upon what services were delivering at the time when national standards were abandoned, are not necessarily determined on the basis of risk but what authorities can afford. So, and in a roundabout way, any national service would have to have an attendance time that is based upon the impact upon life and property risk reduction to a socially tolerable level - not much to ask! It would mean an acceptance that if one lives in an industrial town, one is more likely to be saved by a FRS intervention than if a similar incident occurs in a rural area - an acceptance that a postcode lottery exists and that the response service must work to deliver the best outcome for the greatest number.
But as ever nothing can be as easy at it first appears. While logic is inherent in the creation of a national FRS, emotions and politics would get in the way, even if the technological and organisational solutions are readily available. As we have seen with the regional control centres, despite the directives from government, the enthusiasm of staff (in the RCCs and not in fire controls) and repeated assurances that the projects are on track, the barriers can be insurmountable. The "Big Society" and "Localism" does not mean that larger will necessarily be discounted but the voluntary merger between Devon and Somerset and the exploratory talks between Cumbria and Northumberland and the two Sussexs demonstrates that there may be an appetite for larger FRSs. If the momentum builds for mergers (Thames Valley, West Mercia, Yorkshire) then a larger entity could be only a generation away. And there is the rub. The current Parliament has only four years left and signs are already emerging that its momentum is slipping away. A major restructure of the service by a government already embroiled in one major campaign - the NHS reorganisation - is unlikely to be taken on, and so the probability is that it may take a decade or so before such a move takes place.
Fire and rescue services have been contracting terms of numbers since 1939. Taking a long-term strategic overview of how the service has restructured and continues to evolve from county and borough structures to the current sub regional services, it is not difficult to imagine that within a generation a National Fire Service with national standards could be achieved. For that to happen, a national understanding of risk and its management of the service would be necessary on the part of national and local politicians. It would also need the political will and perseverance to see such a structure through. The will power of the current government will be sorely tested in the next two years as the deficit reduction/slash and burn program faces an increasing resistance. If this can be achieved then national government will have demonstrated that ultimately it can achieve significant change in the public sector. Unification of Fire services will be seen less of a challenge than previously. Now the potential for privatisation, well, that is another matter.
date posted: 26.01.11