As the government seeks to balance the need to reduce the deficit with devolving power, how will the Fire and Rescue Service fare in this new world? Rachael Haydon reports
Following David Cameron's move into Number 10, the coalition government made it clear that reducing the £156 billion deficit was the top priority and that immediate reductions were imperative if the UK was to recover economically.
With this in mind, Fire Minister Bob Neill, speaking at the Harrogate Fire and Rescue Conference, talked about the coalition's vision for the Service. He said: "It has never been more important that we are open to new ideas, to new ways of working and delivery, and to greater flexibility in providing services."
The Bain Report, commissioned at the time of the previous administration, marked the beginning of a prolonged period of central government control in relation to the Fire and Rescue Service. The current Prime Minister has made it clear that now a process of negotiated autonomy will begin - localism and what has been termed the 'Big Society'. There will be a shift in power from Westminster to communities and individuals.
It is hoped that this 'devolution' of power to these smaller communities will instil a forgotten sense of pride and ownership by giving people a strong say over what happens in their area.
By extending citizen power over neighbourhood budgets, and enabling cities and counties to integrate and commission services across localities, devolution will help the government to meet its two most important goals - political reform and deficit reduction. From an FRS perspective, this comes with an urgent need to become a more efficient and leaner.
At the Harrogate, Bob Neill warned: "We must be utterly rigorous in prioritising resources to support frontline services, whilst cutting waste through greater transparency, improving efficiency through more joint working and energetically delivering value for money in procurement."
The shift of power to communities and individuals will change the way services are delivered, and will mean service providers are more accountable. Fire authorities and local authorities will have more power, in symbiosis with communities they represent. This could mark the beginning of an interesting and maybe even fruitful era for all those in the public sector. However, we must be clear where the buck stops.
The Conservatives called for referendums on mayors for cities, for instance. But these mayors must have the power to control services and budgets, and be held accountable.
Removing the red tape
Larger cities will see a removal of red tape, in return for localities committing to getting better results and spending less. Localities are better placed to identify savings and problems; they can tackle issues such as youth offending, homelessness and re-offenders on a local level, producing quicker results.
Integrated Risk Management Planning is already in place, which aims to improve public safety. This is done by local services, driven by a local agenda, and based on local risks and the needs of the community. The Fire Minister said the post-election environment represented an: "Opportunity for those in fire and rescue services to shine and strengthen the engagement you already have in your communities."
Finding a balance
Fire and rescue services already help their communities by working with disadvantaged people, tackling anti-social behaviour and, obviously, fighting fires. As such, they have a positive and trusted relationship with the public. Localism is already a big part of the Fire and Rescue Service.
It is at a local level that public services are delivered, staffed and received. Spending cuts need to be made through a collaboration and integration of public services at a local level. Not only does the Fire and Rescue Service protect and serve the public however, it is an essential addition to resilience country-wide. We can only hope that the renewed political vision of localism finds a comfortable balance - not only between saving costs and delivering a successful service, but also in relation to the Service's status as a national resource in times of crisis.