Speaking to Mark Hardingham, the new Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council, just six days into the job might seem a bit premature but having shadowed his predecessor for the last three months, he is well past the familiarisation stage and clear on what he wants to do. Political Editor Catherine Levin reports.
Mark Hardingham is not new to the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC); he has been Chair of the Protection Committee for the last four years and is firmly at the centre of the NFCC’s Grenfell activity. He leaves Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service after nearly eight years as Chief Fire Officer. Mark said it was about the right time to do something different. “It was still a bit of a wrench to leave Suffolk after such a long time.”
He has been working in a shadow capacity alongside Roy Wilsher for the last three months to understand the role and said: “Roy has been brilliant.
“I’m really pleased to be taking on this role. There’s going to be difficult stuff to do, but I am really looking forward to the next two years and hopefully the two after that.”
With so much going on in the fire and rescue world at the moment, what is top of Mark’s ‘to do’ list?
“I’m really pleased to be taking on this role. There’s going to be difficult stuff to do, but I am really looking forward to the next two years and hopefully the two after that”
He chose to highlight three major areas, starting with how the NFCC is leading and supporting fire and rescue services across the UK with organisational learning. He explained: “Everything from the significant events like the Grenfell Inquiry, the Manchester terror attack and what I expect may well be an inquiry about Covid-19 and the fire and rescue services’ role in that. Also, the organisational learning that goes on every day.”
Second on the list is the broad leadership role that the NFCC has to deliver its portfolio of change. “That includes all of the work of the Central Programme Office, with the Community Risk Programme, the People Programme as well as Digital and Data. It also embraces the Prevention and Protection programmes as well as Operational Guidance and National Resilience.”
And the third item is the increasing use of data and evidence to inform the work that the NFCC does, with an increasingly digital first approach. He added: “There are off the shelf solutions that the NFCC can develop that can be used by all fire and rescue services.”
He added that the second item on the influence list is inspection, with the second round of HMICFRS visits already taking place. Mark said: “We engage with all the inspection regimes. We want to shape what they do and support the continuous improvement approach. Roy had a good relationship with HMICFRS and I want to continue that.”
Completing the influence trio, Mark wants the NFCC to influence broader fire and rescue policy, not necessarily directly related to reform.
“There is an enormous pile of other stuff as well. Funding, leadership, culture, equality and inclusion, New Dimensions 2, improving the Incident Recording System, sustainability of the on-call duty system and implementation of the Emergency Services Network.”
With so much to do, Mark is undaunted. He talked about the virtual visits he has already carried out to 25 fire and rescue services, listening and learning from NFCC members about their concerns. He said that these concerns are broadly similar to his own. “It’s been a fascinating thing to do, spending a couple of hours with senior leadership teams.” He plans to have visited all fire and rescue services in the UK by the end of the summer, only made possible by virtue of the virtual world.
Not satisfied with one list, Mark volunteered a second list focused on influence. “As you would expect, the first on this list is reform. Everyone is talking about the imminent Fire Reform White Paper in England. Front and centre for us is influencing what goes in it.”
“As you would expect, the first on this list is reform. Everyone is talking about the imminent Fire Reform White Paper in England. Front and centre for us is influencing what goes in it”
Returning to the subject of the Fire Reform White Paper and what it might contain, Mark ventured: “I think there’s going to be quite a bit of stuff in it. It will pick up the recommendations in State of Fire. It will pick up what the Home Office has seen of the Fire and Rescue Service over the years and in particular during the pandemic. I would expect to see a greater clarity about the government’s view of the 21st Century Fire and Rescue Service. I would certainly welcome that.”
White papers often lead to legislative change and asked whether this might include substantial change to or even replacement of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, Mark replied: “I don’t know whether it will go that far. Is it necessary? I don’t entirely know. It depends on how much, collectively, we want to do and what time is available to do it.”
If the government mandates police, fire and crime commissioners to replace fire and rescue authorities to cover off governance concerns and scraps the National Joint Council and moves responsibility for pay negotiations to a souped-up police pay reform board, would that be the basis of the 21st Century Fire and Rescue Service that the Home Office wants to see in England at least? Both require legislation, but neither would see the end of the Fire and Rescue Services Act.
Mark responds in part with the usual line about governance: “It’s not for the NFCC to have a view on what governance looks like, but they do want to see good governance.”
He did not respond on the NJC point, but on a related question about the relationship between the NFCC and the Fire Brigades Union, he offered some insight. “I don’t know Matt Wrack [FBU General Secretary] well; I’ve never had any direct dealings with him. I want to have a good relationship with the FBU and all the other unions.” He said that there were many things where the NFCC and FBU collectively agree, but attention is often on those where there are differences.
“It’s back to basics. I want us to meet on a regular basis. There are a range of things we will want to talk about regarding the future of the Fire and Rescue Service.”
With the government’s focus on reform going forward, he is pragmatic about the fact that the NFCC will have different views to those of the representative bodies – and not just the FBU. “It’s not going to be a particularly easy environment in which to pitch that relationship, but for me it comes back to the public: they will benefit more from the NFCC relationship where we talk to the representative bodies, even if we don’t always agree on things. That’s a good starting position and one I want to have.”
This is all very England-centric. How will Mark ensure that he does not focus so much on England that he neglects the concerns and needs of fire and rescue services in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
“Inevitably, the sheer weight of numbers means you do get drawn towards England. There are colleagues in the devolved services who are quick to pull us back. It is my intention to carry on what Roy did by having a UK-wide view and strong engagement with services and inspectorates.”
Cladding Scandal Response
A UK-wide issue at the forefront of the building safety world, where Mark spent the last four years bolstering the NFCC’s capacity and influence, is the cladding scandal affecting thousands of leaseholders. His response is less strident than Roy’s when he talked about this topic in last month’s issue of FIRE.
“It’s a really difficult and tricky area. How do we pick our way through that? How do we remediate the cladding as quickly as we can? How do we support those responsible for those buildings to put in proportionate measures that are not overly risk averse and unaffordable for leaseholders?
“It just highlights how difficult and complicated it is. The Fire and Rescue Service has a role in this issue, but it is not the only organisation, of course.”
When asked if he intended to carry on with Roy’s ad hoc approach to responding to End our Cladding Scandal campaign tweets, his answer focused on engaging with leaseholders about guidance.
He said that he gets 30-40 messages a day via Twitter from a whole range of people affected by remediation. “There are rarely times I can give them an answer they want to hear.” Instead, he described a process where messages are read and forwarded on to relevant individual fire and rescue services. “I do want to engage, but I want to do it through more formal routes rather than a sporadic way through Twitter.”
That is not what the campaigners want: they want the Fire Safety Bill to include a provision that says they will not be responsible for paying for any cladding remediation works. They want those with influence, like the NFCC, to lobby the government to support the amendment to the Bill that is ping ponging between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. This may, of course, be resolved one way or another by the time this article is published.
Like Roy before him, Mark is convinced the NFCC can be both adviser and lobbyist.
Surprisingly, Covid-19 featured very little during this interview. Chief Fire Officer Phil Garrigan is the NFCC lead for pandemic related activity and is now one of two vice chairs supporting Mark. “Phil’s got bags of experience to ably lead on our Covid-19 work. Unlike me, he has a Metropolitan fire and rescue service background, so he brings valuable experience to support me.”
Chief Fire Officer Justin Johnston is the other Vice Chair and, again, with a combined fire and rescue service background in Lancashire, he complements Mark’s county experience. “He has a good track record with national work relating to fire fitness and increasingly work he is doing with Chief Fire Officer Alex Johnson from South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue about equality and inclusion. He’s been a brigade manager for a long time now, so has substantial experience to build upon.”
Mark is clear that the Vice Chair role is substantial and that anyone putting themselves forward in response to the advertisement for these roles should have the time, capacity and the desire to get involved. “It’s not the type of role that can be done in a couple of hours on a Friday afternoon. There are some significant pieces of work to deliver over the next two years.”
Ticking Off The ‘To Do’ List
It looks like Mark’s ‘to do’ list is going to keep him and his vice chairs very busy. He is right to focus in on reform and try to influence that but not at the expense of the wide range of other matters that will fight for his attention. Getting that balance right will not be easy, particularly if the government presses ahead with governance and pay negotiating machinery changes as these will fundamentally alter the way in which fire and rescue services operate. The next two years will certainly fly by and FIRE will review that ‘to do’ list in 2023 to see what gets done.