FIRE Correspondent Tony Prosser investigates the vagaries of fire and rescue governance structures and speculates on the pros and cons of a National Fire and Rescue Service.
“Politics is the art of the possible” is a commonly bandied epigram, used whenever politicians arrive at an impasse and are seeking a compromise to a particularly difficult problem. The full quote – attributed to the ‘Iron Chancellor’, Otto von Bismarck, a man not normally known for his reticence on the diplomatic field (or the battlefield with victories against Denmark, 1865 Austria, 1866 and France 1870-71) – added the often missed second phrase “the attainable – the art of the next best”.
The only topic of conversation at present is Brexit. Before you stifle a yawn, give a thought to politicians working at a more local level: unsung heroes and heroines who have to provide leadership for some of the less glamourous activities in local government, including the management and oversight of the fire and rescue service – truly the art of the next best if ever there was such a thing.
Before 1939, there were over 1,500 fire brigades in the UK, ranging from the Bedwellty Urban District Council’s fire brigade in the Rhymney Valley in South Wales to the London Fire Brigade: now there are only 49 fire and rescue services in the UK. These are: 14 county council fire and rescue fire authorities (FRAs); 23 combined FRAs; five metropolitan FRAs; Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service; London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority; the Scottish Fire and rescue Service; the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service; and the three Welsh fire and rescue authorities. All have their own governance structures, each with their own quirks and foibles. But while local democracy and accountability are undoubtedly served by these various structures, and with the landscape ever changing with potential mergers of services and control of some services being ceded to the police, fire and crime commissioner (PFCC), the number of types of service governance is increasing. While a return to a “parish pump” parochialism is extremely unlikely, the fragmentation is likely to continue and have an impact on the service to the public.
“Should we hold a series of indicative votes to identify a way ahead and perhaps lead to a single governance structure for the FRS across the UK?”
Plethora of Local Leadership
Nobody would ever claim that any system of governance is absolutely perfect. But with seven different structures across the UK, it is perhaps unsurprising that the current uncertainty and lack of confidence with which the FRS is moving forward is possibly a reflection of the plethora of types of local political leadership and lack of government awareness (or interest) in the sector. As pointed out in the Bain report in 2002, it was the case that evidence suggested ‘central government does not give adequate guidance or leadership on fire policy’.
In 2019, it is questionable if central government has in fact improved the level of guidance or leadership on fire policy in the intervening 17 years. In the immediate post dispute years, there was a flurry of activity where central government took an active interest and directed activity centrally, including the successful fire safety check campaigns (complete with funding) between 2004 and 2008. After several notable failures of directive central government policies, however – regional governments and the disastrous and expensive regional fire control projects – the reins have gradually been loosened.
Under Bob Neil’s leadership in the Department of Communities and Local Government 2010-2012 (incidentally, still one of the longest serving fire ministers in the last 20 years), central government essentially washed its hands of the Service, allowing each FRA to go its own way in determining prevention, protection and response policies. No more national directives or guidance about attendance standards, no standard inspection protocols for fire safety and services allowed to develop their own approaches to what they themselves determined to constitute community safety. If this was a commercial sector, then the “hands-off approach” taken by Whitehall culture would be called “self-regulation” and we all know where that leads to in the world of health and safety and, more recently, fire protection. Of course, the trade-off for this freedom meant that responsibilities for when things go wrong could not be placed at the feet of government departments.
The question is then, who runs the Service and is there a model that could fit all types of FRS? What structure out of the existing or potential models could or would work for the whole of the UK and are there advantages and disadvantages with each? Perhaps there needs to be a national dialogue involving those currently responsible for the UK FRS. Should we hold a series of indicative votes to identify a way ahead and perhaps lead to a single governance structure for the FRS across the UK that improves the service to the community, simplifies governance and aids openness and transparency for the public? But what are the options and their relative merits?
“These national models appear to be working well and if they are successful in Northern Ireland and Scotland, then perhaps it is time to seriously consider national fire services in England and Wales”
A county council-led authority was, until the turn of the century, the most common form of FRA. The Local Government Act of 1972 enacted on April 1, 1974 created a two-tier structure of government in metropolitan and non-metropolitan county and district councils. The 1974 reorganisation reduced the 150 post-war brigades (county council county boroughs, city boroughs and city brigades) to 64 in the UK. Over the decades there have been further tweaks: the metropolitans were changed in 1986 and there has been replacement of both district and county councils in some areas by unitary authorities in the 1990s and there are now just 14 county council led services.
There are still a number of advantages to belonging to a county council structure, including a perception of being nearer to the community and more responsive to community needs as representatives of the fire authority are serving county councillors with their own local constituencies. There is also the advantage that being a high profile part of local government which has afforded the service (in the past) having a slightly greater leverage on funding. Partially this is because of the relatively small size of the services and also due to the negative publicity generated by the threat of closure of a fire station. More recently, the opposite has been the case, particularly with councillors having to balance judgements between closing fire stations or reducing the number of teachers and schools or closing social service centres and basing decisions on the basis of the greatest good for the greatest number.
The lack of overall control of budgets is something that can frustrate uniformed leaders of these FRSs and, indeed, viewing where the grass appears greener, some services have been eagerly looking forward to coming under the umbrella of the police and crime commissioner (PCC), anticipating that budgets will be plentiful and ring fenced, unlike their existential predicament.
It would be nice to be able to say that the 23 combined FRAs (CFRA) were of a standard structure but, being part of the UK, this is not necessarily the case having been shoehorned together from lower tier councils forming unitary authorities. The authority structure can vary based upon having proportional representation on the authority by both relative size/population of unitary and the political make-up. One advantage of CFRA is that it sets its own precept and expenditure is determined by the authority, simplifying the decision making process (in county authorities, decisions may require approval by several tiers within the authority) and giving a degree of certainty in that funding cannot be transferred across to other council departments.
Here Come the PCCs
The introduction of police, fire and crime commissioners (PFCCs) into the fire and rescue authority world has, depending on your point of view, simplified the day-to-day running of an FRA or made it more problematic. The four PFCCs established so far under the Policing and Crime Act 2017– Essex, Staffordshire, North Yorkshire and more recently, Northamptonshire – are now up and running. Proposals for the same arrangements in Cambridgeshire and West Mercia (covering Shropshire, Hereford and Worcestershire) have been thwarted by local political opposition fearing loss of local control and accountability (see pg 15 for our exclusive report on the barriers facing prospective PFCCs).
Some fire and rescue services, notably those with county council structures, were in favour of coming under the control of PFCCs as it would give them more certain financial underpinning as well as closer liaison with police services within their area, improving joint working, joint training facilities and an improved response to serious and major incidents.
As police and crime commissioners are directly elected by communities, often elected because of their political allegiance – all current PFCCs are Conservative nominees – and possibly not because of strength of arguments, strategic ideas and thoughts (although I am sure they would prefer to think that was the case). With both the chief fire officer and chief constable reporting directly to this individual, the power vested within the post is quite significant.
Although it is early days, and there has been controversy about the role being a political one, at the moment little seems to have changed in the way services have been run. One of the problems that may face such services in the future is that fire issues tend to emerge relatively infrequently (whether disasters such as Grenfell Tower, or multi-fatality fire deaths and road traffic collisions), whereas policing occupies much more of the community and media attention. Therefore, the PFCC (who is legally the fire and rescue authority) may determine budget priorities based upon the current “media storm” which may favour either FRS or police service to the detriment of the other.
“As can be seen, governance structures for fire and rescue services in the UK are a mess and arranged in nine different ways”
Metropolitan Mismatch and Infrequent Mergers
In the world of the metropolitan, governance should be easy with only seven members but it is not! In the capital, the Fire Commissioner is the fire and rescue authority (and its functional body) for London with the Mayor of London setting the budget and proving the city’s Safety Plan. Unlike London, in Manchester the Fire and Rescue Authority is the Mayor and he is supported by a Fire Committee, 15 members appointed from local authorities. The other five metropolitan authorities are similar in structure to CFAs, with members being appointed from the constituent metropolitan authorities.
Somewhere in the mix of English governance structures there are also the voluntary mergers that occur slightly more frequently than Hailey’s comet. The two mergers in England so far have shown that it can be done successfully if there is a will to achieve. At the moment, any proposals for merger are stamped on with claims of potential unequal community charges, incompatible fit of services etc. These objections seem more designed to maintain the status quo rather than help improving services, but the reactionaries appear to have the upper hand at the moment and any proposed change is being frustrated by the service itself and the political leadership. At a national level, the political will to deliver a better service through wide-scale combination schemes is missing and services are being allowed to manage themselves with parochial interests being given primacy.
Outside England, things have been changing slowly, but newer models have been emerging over the last 20 or so years. In 1996, the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994 created the three Welsh Fire and Rescue Service – the imaginatively but non-controversially named South, Mid and West, and North Wales FRSs. Despite teething problems including “turf wars” up until the day of merger – officers of one service not being allowed to set foot on another’s stations – and a long delay before the cultural issues of merger (or “takeover” depending on which service’s chief got the new and bigger job) were finally resolved, the three services now appear to have a common purpose in service their communities with the Welsh Government keeping a tight control.
So far so good but change is in the wind even in Wales – the Welsh Government sees the FRA currently having sole control over its funding and expenditure and wants that to change by introducing greater external accountability, and a reduction in the membership of fire authorities amongst other things. But it is not all bad news – front line resources including stations, appliances and crewing are left alone and the police, fire and crime commissioner option is ruled out, but a whole Wales service is a possibility (although that is not being pushed very hard). The responses to the consultation paper (Reform of Fire and Rescue Authorities in Wales) are now being considered and feedback is eagerly awaited.
Further down the evolutionary path is Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service covering the six counties of the province and having done so since 1973 when Belfast Fire Brigade merged with the Northern Ireland Fire Authority. In a similar but more recent merger, the Scottish FRS merged to create the whole nation FRS. It would appear that once again there have been teething problems which will continue for a while, but once the structures are fully bedded down a consistent approach to many issues will be given by a single organisation with a straightforward purpose and a single chain of command. Although it will take time to tell, it appears that at least in Scotland, bigger is better and likely to be cheaper too with savings on staffing. There is now one CFO not eight, with area commanders carrying out roles formerly allocated to CFOs, procurement efficiencies, a standard recommendation of reports going back decades, and operational efficiencies and consistent application of policies.
These national models appear to be working well and if they are successful in Northern Ireland and Scotland, then perhaps it is time to seriously consider national fire services in England and Wales. Before you choke on your afternoon cocktails, consider how bad such a proposal would be: consistent implementation of policies, both operational and managerial; ability to react rapidly to changes required as a result of serious fires and accidents involving firefighters; consistent standards of response; long term financial stability and the generation of savings through staffing, fire authority membership and procurement efficiencies of scale. What is not to like? Perhaps that boat has already sailed and the mediocrity of the present arrangements is the best that can be hoped for. Or maybe it will take another generation before there is a real discussion about what type of FRS the UK really wants.
“The variety of organisational governance structures across the fire and rescue services does little to promote harmonisation of procedures for prevention protection and response”
As can be seen, governance structures for fire and rescue services in the UK are a mess and arranged in nine different ways (an alien asking to be taken to the leader of a FRS would probably return to Mars in frustration). Important issues such as response times can be seen as a “postcode lottery” with one service having an attendance time totally out of kilter with the neighbouring services. In any event, these times are not scientifically calculated but based upon what was achievable when the previous guidance was made redundant and amended as achievement becomes reduced (but that is a whole different argument).
Integrated risk management plans, the keystone of response management, as well as underpinning protection and prevention strategies, while open to public scrutiny and comment, invariably only attract feedback from firefighters, the representative bodies and the odd member of the public. Policies, including those affecting high risk activities including breathing apparatus operations, attendance and automatic fire alarms actuating, mobilisation of special appliances and availability specialist resources and officers, are implemented and managed differently across services.
One Metropolitan FRS only uses jets within a building to attack the fire, whereas its neighbours may use hose reel jets for the same fire. These inconsistencies in fundamental operational procedures can lead to injuries in the worst cases and there is a “golden thread” between many incident ground injuries and the policies determined by the organisational leaders: that is why in post-accident investigations, the HSE will seek to find the linkage between policies and procedures and the injury.
The variety of organisational governance structures across the fire and rescue services does little to promote harmonisation of procedures for prevention protection and response. National guidance is produced and modified to suit the needs of the local communities and very often it will not be as consistent as may be required. The impact of cuts on services irrespective of size have serious consequences – many services are now, because of budgetary restrictions, setting a crewing model of four firefighters on a pumping appliance yet retaining the same predetermined attendance (or level of response) to the premises based on previous standards. The problem with having different governance models means that there is little universal consistency, variable standards and it has been criticised as having the potential to generate a race to the lowest standards acceptable.
But why has this confusion been allowed to continue? The simple fact is that it is difficult to argue with success that the Fire and Rescue Service has in the last decade and a half in reducing the numbers of incidents, fires and fire deaths and injuries, while, at the same time making swingeing cuts to services (17 per cent reduction in firefighters) in order to meet budgetary reductions imposed by central government. So confusing and sometimes inefficient structures are used to run the fire and rescue services in the UK and look set to continue. Perhaps not so much “the art of the next best”, maybe the art of the next, next, next best.