‘Urgent agreement needed on our funding’ – Chief Fire Officer

West Midlands' CFO warns that 'huge questions' hang over fire and rescue sector finances



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Published on 21 February 2020

Band D Council Tax payers in the West Midlands will pay just £1.21 a year extra for their fire and rescue service. At £61.81 a year, it’s the lowest fire service charge in England.

The 1.99% increase was approved on 17 February by members of West Midlands Fire and Rescue Authority (WMFRA). Please click here to read the full report.

But the Chair of WMFRA has called for additional central government funding to replace the deep cuts of the last 10 years and the lifting of a Government cap on how much extra Council Tax fire and rescue authorities can raise.

And Phil Loach, the West Midlands’ Chief Fire Officer, says that funding for the fire and rescue sector urgently needs to be reviewed, increased and allocated on a more sustainable basis.CFO Loach said: “Metropolitan fire and rescue services have been the worst hit by reductions in Government funding, and West Midlands Fire Service more than any other.

“In spite of this, our staff continue to provide our wide range of prevention and protection services and emergency response that is officially recognised as second to none.

“Yet we only have certainty around our Government funding settlement for one year. If we are to maintain and improve upon our ‘good’ grading from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, then we urgently need more clarity around how we will be funded in the future.

“As the budget report to WMFRA makes clear, our sector faces a volatile funding environment. This hampers any meaningful financial planning and threatens the high standards for which our service is known and the confidence our communities place in us.”

CFO Loach said “huge questions” hang over fire and rescue finances.

“We await the Government’s next Comprehensive Spending Review and an indication of our likely funding beyond 2020/21. But we need urgent agreement on how the sector will be funded in the longer term and on other significant issues such as who will meet the future costs of firefighter pensions.

“Our funding needs to take account not only of demand we experience, but of the known and emerging risks we identify in our communities.

“Our firefighters and fire safety officers regularly visit high-rise buildings across the West Midlands, to familiarise themselves with how they are built and laid out. They record the information, which can later be accessed via mobile data terminals, to help keep our crews safe as they provide an assertive and effective response at incidents.

“However, I have no doubt that there are buildings in the West Midlands which, were they to catch fire, would potentially behave in ways that would be very difficult for our firefighters to fight.

“These buildings need to be found, our firefighters need to know the risks they face and remedial works need to be carried out. This is in addition to the extensive and urgent work we have already done post-Grenfell, which required an extra £600,000 investment by our Fire Authority.

“In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, building safety regulations and systems remain in sharp focus. Our sector needs significant extra investment if we are to take an enhanced role in future building safety regimes.”

Councillor Greg Brackenridge, Chair of WMFRA, said: “Our Government funding settlement for 2020/21 is better than we expected. However, it is only for one year and we are guarding against a false sense of security when it comes to future settlements.

“We are constantly having to argue the fire and rescue sector’s case. What we need in future years is the £38m we have lost over 10 years of austerity replaced and greater flexibility in the amount of money we’re allowed to raise from Council Tax.

“At the moment we are only allowed to increase our share of the Council Tax by 1.99%. Anything above that would have to be put to a costly referendum.

“However, as an example, an increase of eight per cent – or, to put this into context, £5 per year for a Band D property – would raise an extra £3.5m to keep safe a population of nearly three million people. It wouldn’t come close to what we’ve lost in recent years, but it would be a great help and I know that the leaders of the West Midlands councils would support this.

“The firefighters and staff of West Midlands Fire Service do a fantastic job in keeping our communities safe. The service is recognised as one of the very best in the country. But without improvements in funding over a sustained period it will be very difficult for our already stretched fire service.”