It was always going to be tricky to extract fire and rescue services from county councils. When the civil servants were drafting up the instructions for the Policing and Crime Bill back in 2016, did they consider how police and crime commissioners would take on governance of fire from local authorities that were unlikely to want to lose a department and the photo opportunities to boot? The answer is probably not.

Hertfordshire and Northamptonshire provide great contrasting case studies of how a policy that is broad brush in its intent becomes fraught with difficulties when applied to the (far too) many governance models for fire in England (see pg 10).

 

Stephen Mold, Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner for Northamptonshire

 

Governance Trials

Stephen Mold became the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner for Northamptonshire on January 1, 2019. He shared his experience of taking on governance of fire from Northamptonshire County Council when he spoke at the National Fire Chiefs Council conference on PCCs and fire governance. He was followed by David Lloyd, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Hertfordshire who said the conference provided a “cathartic moment” to share his frustrations that despite trying to take on governance of fire from Hertfordshire County Council, he did not succeed.

The stories they both tell are instructive. They share similar experiences, but there are critical aspects of both that mean the end result is quite different. They both describe the process of trying to quantify the cost of fire as incredibly difficult when so many of the common functions like HR, payroll and ICT are provided by the council and fire is not a stand-alone entity. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate for Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) found the same problem when they inspected the counties – for the efficiency strand in particular – and this is expressed in the first tranche of the inspection reports. It is a real problem and besets any PCC where the corresponding fire and rescue service is part of the county council.

 

“How could I look anyone in the eye that worked there and say we abandoned you because it looked too difficult to do?”

Stephen Mold, Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner for Northamptonshire

 

David Lloyd describes the county council setting in blunt terms: “It takes from those that are the most effective and efficient and with the lowest demand and gives to those are most ineffective and inefficient and have the highest demand.”

Prior to becoming the PCC, David Lloyd was for many years an elected member of Hertfordshire County Council, so he knows from first-hand experience how the budget setting process works. This has clearly informed his thinking. “I was upfront from the outset,” he says. “That making the case for transfer of fire governance would not stack up on a purely economic argument and that there was a need to look beyond the savings to the wider transformational benefits that could be achieved. The business case would make a strong case for significant improvements in public safety and the effectiveness and efficiency of service delivery.”

The need for transformation through collaboration is a strong theme of David’s speech and it is in great contrast to the experience in Northamptonshire where transformation was last on the list when staff did not have enough cash to buy a new kettle or paper for the printer. The council ran out of money and used powers under the 1988 Local Government Finance Act to issue a section 114-notice meaning no new expenditure would be permitted. This is not normal; it is only the second local authority to be in this position in 20 years.

Rescuing a Failing Service

In Hertfordshire, councillors fought to keep fire as part of the county which is in huge contrast to Northamptonshire where Stephen Mold was asked by his own finance officer: “Do you really want to do this? Do you want to take on a failing service? Why do you want the hassle?” When his own staff questioned his intent, it says something about the situation and about him that can be found in his response: “How could I look anyone in the eye that worked there and say we abandoned you because it looked too difficult to do?”

He says that Chief Fire Officer Darren Dovey was asked whether the county could sell any of the fire buildings so that the county could keep the capital receipts before they were handed over to the PCC. PCC as saviour? That certainly was not in the policy instructions for the Policing and Crime Bill and yet there it was the perfect solution to a problem: take fire out of the county and give it to the PCC.

In the race to become the first Police, Fire and Commissioner, Stephen Mold lost out to Roger Hirst in Essex (he was fourth after Staffordshire and North Yorkshire). Both had said right from the start that they wanted to take on fire because of organisational difficulties affecting the delivery of the service.

The business case that a PCC has to develop to make the case for change has to work in terms of effectiveness and efficiency. It is critical for the successful transition to Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner. Stephen Mold says his business case was very unimaginative. “It’s very boring but it’s about stabilisation and rescuing the service.” He made no commitment to cut budgets; in fact he said he would be increasing the precept.

As there was no opposition to the changes proposed in Northamptonshire, the business case was not sent for independent review by CIPFA. Brexit got in the way creating additional delays to getting the secondary legislation through so the PFCC could legally exist – and that was critical to being able to do functions like get a bank account to pay people. Stephen majored on the prosaic but important details that need sorting if transition is to be successful and smooth.

 

“Most of the blame lies with the Home Office. If they want a new governance model they need to mandate it. If they don’t, they won’t get transformation”

David Lloyd, Police and Crime Commissioner for Hertfordshire

 

County Council and Home Office Obstacles

Not so in Hertfordshire, where David Lloyd’s business case was reviewed twice by CIPFA with new material in the second version seeming to tip local opposition to his business case even further against the change than before. “What had started out with 78 councillors with no particular view ended up with 78 councillors vehemently opposed to the changes.” For the first time in his career he managed to get a unanimous vote – but against the change in governance proposals. That is quite a feat.

 

David Lloyd, Police and Crime Commissioner for Hertfordshire

 

Both vividly describe their experiences of dealing with the Home Office. Stephen Mold compares conversations with the Home Office to conversations with his five-year-old daughter: “They just defy logic.” In comparison, David Lloyd speaks about his political masters in central government in quite different terms, where he is following the party line, doing their bidding by moving quickly and firmly towards change. Mindful of the proximity of Brandon Lewis’s constituency in Essex, the then Fire Minister clearly had an effect on David Lloyd.

Unfortunately the relationship between David and the Home Office changed as the new Fire Minister came into post in June 2017. He describes the considerable delay in getting a decision and bearing in mind the speed with which he went through the process to submit his business case to the Secretary of State, he is well aware of the irony of his position. He concludes: “There’s no doubt that some of the stalling in the Home Office was set within the context of the changing ministerial leadership around fire and who clearly did not share the same appetite to drive forward blue light collaboration as their predecessors.”

In August 2018, after waiting nearly 12 months for approval from the Secretary of State, David Lloyd suspended his business case. He says: “This was a win for the county council, not me.”

And there it is. No governance change in Hertfordshire but a complete change in Northamptonshire, with the imminent break-up of the council into two unitary authorities and a fire and rescue service now under the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner.

 

“None of this bodes well for any other PCC to take on fire, let alone one where there is a county council involved. Who would?”

 

Collaboration Transformation

If transformation is through collaboration rather than a governance change, then David Lloyd should do well. He tipped up on Twitter recently smiling in a photo showing the new joint training facility proudly branded under the JESIP banner. He signed an MOU with the council shortly after suspending his business case. There are new oversight arrangements through an Emergency Services Collaboration Board with a programme of work to build on existing good work and scope out a new direction of travel to increase joint opportunities in procurement, training and other areas.

Stephen Mold talks about collaboration in different, more colourful terms. “There will always be red, there will always be blue but we want more purple”. He says it is the job of the two chiefs to make sure collaboration takes place, although successful collaboration also relies on his relationship with his Chief Fire Officer. “If Darren (Dovey) and I need to decide something, we sit down and we can make that decision and do it.” He demonstrates how agile the decision making can be when fire is outside of the confines of a county council process.

That point about agility is an important one and it is at the front of David Lloyd’s mind as he talks about the pace of change as well. “There is no doubt that our local arrangement will still allow for the implementation of blue light collaboration, but the pace of change will be slower than otherwise would have been the case.”

From full speed ahead to slowly, slowly, David Lloyd finishes off his cathartic presentation by sharing what he has learnt from the last two years. He is blunt about where the blame lies for his failure to take on fire governance in Hertfordshire. “Most of the blame lies with the Home Office. If they want a new governance model they need to mandate it. If they don’t, they won’t get transformation.”

Gloucestershire Go-ahead?

And there ends the tale of these two counties, but there is one more to go. Gloucestershire PCC Martin Surl is waiting to hear about the Secretary of State’s decision of him taking on fire from Gloucestershire County Council where the opposition is fierce. If the experience of both Cambridgeshire and West Mercia is anything to go by, approval from the government is likely to end up mired in judicial review and hopes of any kind of transformation or collaboration a distant aspiration.

None of this bodes well for any other PCC to take on fire, let alone one where there is a county council involved. Who would? It is a policy that is grinding to a halt, but with the inspections continuing apace and all the reports published by the end of this year that may yet be the catalyst for a new burst of interest from PCCs.