It is impossible to gauge what the new Fire Minister, Mark Francois, will make of the Fire and Rescue Service and indeed, the wider fire sector. It is hard enough to know what to make of it as a supposedly experienced fire reporter used to the cycle of political overhaul.
The Fire Brigades Union know what to expect as the Conservative government’s approach to trade union industrial action has already been amplified. Reporting from the FBU conference in Blackpool the week after the election verdict, the mood of antipathy and deflation soon gave way to good old fashioned defiance and expressions of unity. Welcome to fire.
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Fire and rescue services know what to expect, as does the rest of the public sector: continued austerity, cuts and an increasing burden with decreasing resources. At time of writing the Fire Minister will be being briefed on the recent history of the UK Fire and Rescue Service, and will doubtless be regaled with the powerful prevention narrative well-rehearsed in these pages over recent years. More recent talk at the LGA Fire Conference on capacity and the average 1.3 response per fire station per day in England and Wales will lead down a provocative avenue, contextualised by government advisers.
The briefings will turn to blue light integration, merged services and community risk reduction teams. At this point devolution, the Northern Powerhouse and localism re-written will bring in fresh-faced ministerial colleagues who’ll be trying to work out how it all fits together. Good luck.
To backtrack for a moment. In the run-up to the last national dispute (2002-2003), this reporter was harassed by media colleagues to explain why the Fire Service had not modernised. From shaky memory, I recall pointing to a patchwork quilt of fire and rescue response which formed a rich, if haphazard tapestry, known collectively as the UK Fire Service. I would point to a similar experience of late. Ok, modernisation has long since seeped into FRS folklore, replaced by professionalism, partnership working and progressive community-based initiatives.
Nowadays, the patchwork quilt differs less in quality and more in cash – those less able to cope facing an uncertain future, whilst the holy grail of survival looms delightfully large for the likes of Dorset and Wiltshire. A Labour government would have explored the possibility of a single Fire and Rescue Service and in the process would have been tempted to look at the Scottish model.
Seeing as it appears to work, there is no reason not to find out more given a) there’s plenty of SNP MPs on hand to have a chat with, and b) one nation Conservatism embraces these kinds of discussions, does it not? The pitfalls of lifting privatisation, mutualisation and national models and mapping across to the whole of England and Wales have likewise been well explored in these pages.
But there will be more searching and experimentation to come. All I would suggest is that after listening to the various fire and rescue factions, consult the fire sector as a whole; it might prove soothing.