Despite being in power for over six months, there remains an aura of uncertainty, an impermanence of the coalition government. Decisions, whether about the abolition of long-held policies such as the regional spatial strategy for housing, the timing of Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) grant allocations or of what to do with regional control centres, seem to be announced before being thought about.
Fire futures, the initiative to determine what the future Fire and Rescue Service looks like, appears to have been rushed through with little cognizance of the difficulties in deriving a consensual approach (between government, local government, service managers, staff and the community) and like other changes initiated during the euphoria of change of government appears to be stalling, beset by a lack of cohesion or time for a considered response even by the limited number of consultees.
As can be expected with any change of government, lobbyists, think tank experts and a host of vested interests all come out of the woodwork to promote their views, their aspirations, and seek to influence government policy. New ideas abound and in amongst the wild and wacky suggestions, there are, as viewed by government and ministers, germs of ideas which may have significance far beyond the original intent.
Take for instance the notion of mutualisation. Francis Maude and the Cabinet Office have suggested that many aspects of the social infrastructure in the UK could be managed by existing staff for the benefit of the community. It has been reported on the Radio Four's 'Today' programme that, amongst other things, fire stations and other community buildings could be run and managed by the staff that work in them. Whereas the setting up of a mutual organisation carrying out a single function or on a single site may be relatively simple, the deconstruction of a service that provides delivery across a large geographical or demographic base will prove to be more difficult.
The idea of a fire station, retained duty system (RDS) or otherwise, being managed autonomously, independent of a wider structure remains fanciful and unlikely to occur. The impact of such announcements however, are more difficult to quantify: for staff, managers and the community, there could be a degree of uncertainty as some commentators have already identified that this could be a way of moving the service to a looser, less structured model of delivering the response service across society.
In the more mainstream side of the fence, as time goes on the idea of a 'big society' gains traction. The crystallisation of the concept in people's minds is starting to bear fruit. The concept focuses around two big ideas; the first is that 'we are all in it together' and that public service infrastructures will deliver a citizen-focused service that both meets the needs of the individual and of the requirement to reduce the national deficit. The second is that of active citizenship - the idea that citizens have the ability and the will to make a contribution to society for the good of the community. The public sector (and by implication the fire and rescue services) will be able to both tap into this allegedly expansive volunteer resource, helped to deliver this capacity through organisation and support and, also, benefit from this increased capacity and citizen focused effort.
Bound up in this notion of a bigger society are some of the changes that the Government now wishes to make in order to address the issue of localism and the decentralisation of power and financial means to sub regional and district governance structures. The measures introduced by Eric Pickles, Bob Neill and others at the Department of Community and Local Government (CLG) seek to reduce the barriers and burdens of bureaucracy on those organisations that deliver services to the community. These measures include the end of the use of National Indicators to beat local authorities. This has a minimal impact on the fire and rescue services as most Local Area Agreements had few FRS related targets (fire, arson and road traffic collision indicators).
It is of concern however, that the loss of indicators, LAAs and the audit commission has created what could be a gap in performance management of local authorities. In addition, while very few would mourn the demise of the Audit Commission, it is worth remembering that the previous inspection regime under Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Fire Services were also considered less than perfect and had their own flaws and idiosyncrasies that were criticised in that era. Unfortunately, there now appears to be a hiatus during which much mischief making could occur and again concern will be raised amongst both the professionals and FRA elected members about the future of performance management within the Fire Service.
One of the ideals upon which the FRS is founded is that the service delivers its prevention and response functions on the basis of the needs. One of the intentions of the Equality's Act 2010 was to give public's authorities they duty to ensure they deliver services in an equitable manner and give predominance to those less able to fend for themselves. This socio-economic duty will not now be implemented which could have dire consequences for those with fewer means and who are likely to be in need of greater support from public services. Hopefully, the sophistication with which FRSs deliver prevention-based activities means that largely, this duty was already being met. One of the unfortunate implications for the Service is that other organisations, no longer bound by this duty may not be making the contacts with which to source to the socio-economic groups that may be at most at risk from fire.
While no longer being bound by equality and diversity targets following the Minister's statement about the change in emphasis within the National Framework, the Service will still need to develop strategies to ensure that its workforce and its activities are representative of the community and are delivered at the point of greatest need. Unfortunately, the message perceived by some is that the imperative that led to the equality and diversity agenda in the FRS is no longer important and that the foot can be taken off the accelerator towards a truly diverse workforce.
The matter of unforeseen and unintended consequences can also be applied to the (slightly delayed) termination of regional spatial strategies, a key part of which was the setting of quotas on each local authority to set targets for the building of homes including affordable homes. One of the impacts of this move will be to restrain building which could in turn make homes less affordable due to the laws of supply and demand. This will inevitably lead to more overcrowding in some classes of rented properties, particularly houses in multiple occupancy (HMO) and in the 'grey housing sector'. Thus the most vulnerable properties for fires will inevitably become just a little more risky.
Of course this may have little impact upon the grand scheme of things, for example, the deficit reduction programme. As we all wait with baited breath about how the cuts will fall, there exists a danger that has the potential to fragment an already disunited FRS. Due to the complexity of the grant funding formula, a 25 per cent cut in grant could manifest itself in a net reduction of between 8.5 per cent (for authorities receiving around 30 per cent direct grant from Central Government) and 17 per cent (for authorities receiving 60 per cent plus direct grant). This difference reflects the relative needs of an area and the ability of FRSs to raise funding through the precept. County Councils have their own issues to deal with. In a benevolent county (if such a thing now exists), the FRS may be shielded from the worse of the cuts. Conversely, with declining fire and rescue activity, the council may wish to make a decision to reduce funding above the notional 25 per cent to cross subsidise education or social services. The bottom line is not that it is going to hurt, but how much. Metropolitan, combined and county FRSs are all in the firing line but the various governance and funding mechanisms are potentially divisive and could set the service on a path of factionalism, something that should be avoided at all costs.
Set against this pervasive doom and gloom there is one aspect that is now tending to unite most within the industry. Like a super tanker that has been holed below the waterline, the regional control project (however it has been defined - and it has had many definitions) at last looks as if it is about to succumb to the inevitable demise, predicted by so many so long ago. The damage the ship has left in its wake - the experience lost where control staff jumped ship because of the fear of redundancy (in 2008!), the number of control systems creaking along way beyond their replacement dates and the time, effort and careers expended on what may have been one of the wildest goose chases of all time - will take years to remediate.
The government has got the bit between its teeth and has set itself a tough agenda of change that will not only affect the way the service views itself but also how it relates to the rest of society. The success, or otherwise, of its endeavours for both the fire and rescue service and the wider society will only emerge with time.
Date posted: 15.12.10