With the new government promising severe monetary restrictions, what will the impact be on the FRS? David Wright discusses

Making Cuts 

In the three months or so since the new coalition government took over the reins of the country, the rate of activity is comparable to that of previous new governments. However, this time, the coalition has taken over during a deep recession. Some of the decisions it has taken could have a major impact upon the Fire and Rescue Service to manage the fire environment in the UK.

There is no reason to expect that the service will have a lesser 'cut' than other areas of the public sector. If cuts of the order of 25 per cent are imposed, the impact will be different across the UK and depend on the service structure. Given that non-salary expenditure is less than 20 per cent, it is inevitable that reduction in the number of firefighters will occur. Many services already have a moratorium on recruitment in place. Whether this will be enough to avoid redundancies depends on the rate of cutting. A six per cent year-on-year reduction will mean that natural wastage should cover the majority of staff shrinkage.

One potential saving grace could be if the cut only applies to the government portion of service income. Of the grant that makes up 30 per cent, 25 per cent of the income equals about eight per cent of total budget, (70 per cent of income will come from local ratepayers). Some metropolitan services with 60 per cent of funding from central government could lose 15 per cent of their total income. But things are not clear yet - a tense few weeks will have to pass before the details are announced in the Chancellor's autumn statement, and the spending review for each department is finalised in December.

Cutting the Public Sector 

Lack of clarity now means that services could end up over or under-reacting; creating uncertainty and tension for staff already under the threat of a pay freeze. Staff already face attacks around their pensions, redundancy packages and threats of changes in trade union legislation. Official-sounding private sector organisations purporting to make independent and unbiased judgements appear to be in the throes of setting a direction damaging to private and public sector relations. The Public Sector Pensions Commission is making many recommendations about future pension policy. This commission is part of the Institute of Directors - hardly likely to be an organisation with an unbiased view of the public sector.

The pension issue threatens to destabilise industrial relations within a Service that still has not truly gotten over the 2002/2004 dispute. Despite a six year cooling off period, rhetoric has started to reach worrying levels with a cold war threatening to break in to hot.

Cuts in other public budgets will have an impact. Cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme will stop dead the momentum for the acceptance of sprinkler systems in educational programmes. In addition, the loss of a major construction programme will have a devastating effect upon the building industry, already damaged by the downturn in the housing and commercial market. Where builders and developers may have had an inclination to include sprinklers in a building previously (and there were not too many examples of that), the tightening of purse strings will almost certainly cause a dramatic rethink.

Fire engine1 

The Impact on the FRS 

At a national level, each government department is looking at its own internal mechanics. The Department of Communities and Local Government, never loved and regarded by many as one of the 'also ran' departments of state, has suffered through a haemorrhaging of key staff and a general thinning down. This has resulted in delays in key projects and guidance to the FRS. With a shedding of 25 per cent of the budget on the cards, motivation is not set to be very high, and enthusiasm for change will be limited.

In the USA, many fire departments facing cuts have targeted their prevention departments in order to reduce spend. The focus on keeping the big red trucks on the run at the expense of programmes that have had such a marked effect on reducing fire death rates will inevitably mean that numbers of fires and deaths will rise again. The temptation to do similar in the UK should be resisted and if anything, during a recession, prevention based activities should increase.  

Before the election, both partners in the coalition appeared to be clear about the future of the FiReControl Project - it would be reviewed by a sceptical eye with an indication of major reworking if it did not appear to be working. Some time has now elapsed and the uncertainty about the project remains. Pulling the plug on a project that has consumed £400 million and delivered very little is still a major decision with the potential for as much criticism for stopping the project as for continuing with it. If lessons can be learned from the debacle, then it is that if a project is going to be managed, the processes need to be followed and that includes being morally brave enough to stop projects at gateway points and not to repeatedly fudge the issue. As a Service and as a country we can no longer afford projects that float in concept but fail to translate into a grounded reality.

From a fire perspective the country is at a crossroads. The easy option is to take a slash and burn approach to the Service, decimating randomly, picking low hanging fruit. The challenge for the Service is to adopt an approach which allows the best of what happens now to be improved upon and adopted across the UK and making savings as a by-product. The alternative will be a clunking process which pulls the service back into the 1980s when things were far worse than they are today. To be in a position in 2020 where we can look back a decade and point out the day when continuous improvement stopped, is somewhere no future government wants to be. The writing is on the wall.