As FRS leaders question the validity of mergers, Andrew Lynch, Editor of FIRE, suggests they may be unavoidable to protect the long-term sustainability of the Service as we know it
Protecting frontline services has become something of a mantra across the public sector - an empty one according to union leaders, but one that should be considered sacrosanct in the Fire and Rescue Service. However, should and would are two separate things - the swathe of cuts will inevitably hit deeper in some locales, and frontline services will be damaged.
This is not doom-mongering - merely a reflection of the disparate structure of fire and rescue authorities across the land, consisting of a variety of combinations of county council, unitary and metropolitan authorities.
Surviving the change
It is inevitable that some will suffer exponentially greater than their larger neighbours. If the Fire and Rescue Service nationally is to survive and thrive, it is clear that there should be no sacred cows.
In an address to the LGA/Combined Fire Authorities Conference, Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes Fire Authority Chairman David Rowlands appealed for action, lest it be thrust upon the Service. Although Fire Minister Bob Neill expressed otherwise at the Fire Conference in Harrogate earlier this year, a proactive approach may be the saviour for those struggling to see beyond that 25 per cent Sword of Damocles.
We always refer to the Fire and Rescue Service as a national body, although it does not exist as such. Yet, the mark of sustainability should be measured in how the Service performs collectively. As Mr Rowlands pointed out: "In military parlance: if our units are so different as to be incapable of being combined, how risky is it to expect us to have similar working arrangements, standards and traditions? In truth, I propose that we are not really that different in those terms."
The question then becomes, is there an ideal model size authority? Perhaps so, and it is hovering anywhere between Bucks and London. More important considerations are economies of scale and improved service delivery. The political and logistical obstacles obviously need weighing, but the primary drivers of cost and improvement need emphasising, so that necessary action isn't curtailed for fear of upset.
Reinforcing his Chairman's concerns, CFO Mark Jones said that if an ideal fire authority size was in existence then the driver should be towards enforced mergers and that shared services, whilst fashionable, were inadequate to the scale of cost-cutting requirements (see next issue for full report). He asked: "Are [fire authority mergers] being courted or are such changes likely to take the form of arranged marriages?"
Further, in a comparison with mergers in the commercial world, if proposed changes do not stack up he suggested that the sector "may be ripe for privatisation." In all of these considerations, it is becoming apparent that FRS leaders are no longer considering the short-term comments of ministers as being of paramount importance. Rather, the potentially shattering economic impact of underplaying the hand wields far greater influence.
In the final analysis, mergers will prove to be inevitable. It is all down to the form they will take, and strangely enough, private sector knowledge may prove invaluable in preference to privatisation. Where we find ourselves now is that when we slip down the hierarchy of needs into survival mode, nothing is sacred anymore. Anyone who begs to differ is clearly unsighted.