Legacy of austerity

The future of fire and rescue services is at a crossroads. Don’t just take my word for it; Roy Wilsher, Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), said so at the Institution of Fire Engineers Conference (see pg 45). Speaking to an audience on the theme of professionalism and ethics, he bemoaned the loss of the last iteration of the Inspectorate, Fire Service examinations and standards of fire cover after what he called a decade of neglect. Words, one might suggest, that could have come from the mouth of Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, himself.

The outfall from the recent second tranches of inspections from HMICFRS (see pg 10) reinforces this perspective when HMI Zoë Billingham notes on pg 5: “It is concerning that there is too much variation in how fire and rescue services operate, resulting in a postcode lottery in the standards of service the public receives”.

“Postcode lottery” did indeed come straight from the mouth of Matt Wrack, on numerous occasions, over many years. It may even begin to sound like they’re all singing from the same hymn sheet, if not to the same tune.


“It is highly unlikely that 10,000 firefighters will emerge overnight in an oversight that may be perceived as ‘benign neglect’, Boris”


The Inspectorate recommends the identification and measurement of response standards following integrated risk management planning and the NFCC is looking at supporting this approach through its Community Risk Programme (see Fire Knowledge Briefing pg 13). Is this the solution? Will fire and rescue services be able to right the wrongs of the last decade or is this too simplistic a reading?

FIRE recalls former Fire Minister Mike O’Brien informing us the day after his dismissal that “successive government have treated the Fire Service with benign neglect for decades”. Whilst such refreshing candour from a politician served to shine a spotlight on an under-appreciated public service, the ensuing scrutiny shook the Service to the core and opened the door for wholesale change with the advent of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004.

Who knows what a different state the fire world would be in if austerity had not hit us so hard and, while 20,000 police officers may be appearing on a street corner near you soon, it is highly unlikely that 10,000 firefighters will emerge overnight in an oversight that may be perceived as ‘benign neglect’, Boris. It could be rectified through, say, a Malthouse Compromise #2, but kindly refrain from holding your breath. Welcome to the fray, Minister.

Back to the past. The Knight Review acted as a further catalyst for change, followed by Theresa May’s policing-inspired reform agenda driving efficiencies that have yielded slim pickings, as the Inspectorate is now discovering. Being cut to the bone has ramifications elsewhere, wouldn’t you know?

Police and crime commissioners, meanwhile, have as yet to be the panacea few predicted, perhaps adding to the maelstrom of wobbly governance structures rather than simplifying as had been the intention.

We are already seeing the legacy of austerity on fire and rescue services; how many years before the tide will turn?

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