In an analysis of the financial resilience of the sector, the NAO highlighted that fire brigades’ own auditors, as well as peer review teams, had raised concerns in a small number of England’s 46 authorities.
Auditor general Amyas Morse said: "Fire and rescue authorities have managed funding reductions well since 2010. There have been no financial failures and the numbers of fires and casualties have continued to fall.
"I would expect the Department for Communities and Local Government to have a better understanding of the appropriate funding level necessary to support services, in order to maintain the financial sustainability of the sector in the context of funding cuts. The Department should also seek greater assurance that authorities are maintaining service standards and delivering value for money locally."
There was a 12% real-terms reduction in spending on fire and rescue services between 2010/11 and 2014/15, the report found. Given the savings already made, some services told the NAO any further savings in the forthcoming Spending Review could only be able to be met through further reductions in firefighters.
At the same time, the number of fires and casualties have continued their long-term downward trend: primary fires, those involving casualties or damage to property, fell by 23% from 2010-11 to 2014-15, while the number of fatalities in fires fell by 22% over the same period.
Impact of funding reductions
In its accompanying report, Impact of funding reductions on fire and rescue services, the NAO takes an in-depth look at how fire and rescue authorities have responded to declining budgets since 2010-11. The NAO warns that if funding reductions were to continue in future years, the sector would be faced with twin challenges: to implement new cost-reduction measures, and to manage increased risks.
Among the NAO’s recommendations is that the Department should assess the likely impacts of different types of service transformation on cost reduction and service improvement.
However, in response, a DCLG spokeswoman said it was disappointed the NAO did not recognise the excellent work of fire and rescue authorities in reducing fire deaths and incidents by around half over the last decade.
“We collect and publish an extensive range of data from fire and rescue authorities across the country on spending, performance and outcomes, which show improvements across the board,” she added.
“DCLG has considerable expertise in this area which allows us to challenge and validate the data and we are confident that services have been maintained while making valuable savings for taxpayers.”