Combining blue light services

On Thursday, members wished Sarah Woodhouse well as she started her maternity leave. I am very pleased to welcome Toby Ganley to the LGA, who joins us from the Department of Internal Affairs in New Zealand (their Home Office), where he led the policy team that reformed New Zealand’s fire services.

Toby has also worked in indigenous affairs for the New Zealand Government, in fundraising regulation in the UK, lectured in politics at the University of Queensland, Australia, and taught English in Bogota, Colombia. He’s pleased to bring this diverse experience to the team and to the LGA. He’s also an avid fan of the All Blacks, so if you are interested in rugby, he’ll probably enjoy sharing his opinions!

Party conferences are underway with support for the first of our groups this weekend, straight after our Thursday member development session on campaigning. We have important elections next May and, of course, most of us start the day we are elected! If you missed the session and would like more information, please let me know.

I wrote about the Autumn Budget last week and we expect the Government announcement on 22 November. This week I want to look at the issue of combining blue light services. Collaboration certainly improves the service and reduces cost, but is full amalgamation a good idea? The Grenfell disaster brings the Fire Service suddenly into sharp focus.

Under new legislation, the police and crime commissioners (PCCs) and elected city mayors can take the local fire service from the local councils. Under the Policing and Crime Act, changes take place in 2017/18, starting with Essex this October and London in April 2018.

There are currently 45 English and three Welsh Fire and Rescue Authorities in LGA or WLGA membership. The LGA is the membership body alongside the officers’ National Fire Chiefs Council. The PCCs have a smaller body called the Association of PCCs, currently chaired by the PCC for Hertfordshire. Clearly, good co-operation is vital for our services. The Act allows for Welsh PCCs to take on the fire service, but the governance is devolved to the Welsh government, and no change is currently indicated.

There is nothing new in working together. The Government has already invested £80m on improving collaboration. A national report on progress came out last year. 

For example, fire officers serve as first responders and also transport people to hospital. They receive a call-out payment, which comes out of the Fire Services budget, initially supported by the ambulance service. This is not free and requires enough trained, retained fire officers ready to manage health callouts, especially if they get tied up for long periods. As we know, the Ambulance Service already struggles, leading to some unacceptable delays, especially in rural areas. If staff are more generic, then it should make the service more reliable, as long as the overall staffing and budget is sufficient.  Working with voluntary organisations, such as Lives, has reduced waiting times for a first response, but still needs an ambulance call-out.

One pilot in Stanhope has community safety responders perform three joint roles: police community support officer, retained on-call fire-fighter and an emergency medical responder trained to attend ambulance service Red 1 and 2 category calls, from its base within the local fire and police stations. “Joint response units” are being rolled out across London and “rural intervention vehicles” in rural areas. Cheshire, Derbyshire, Hampshire and Lincolnshire are among those creating joint fire and police buildings. Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Kent are among those with joint control rooms.

Six PCCs have taken on the Fire Service or are consulting on it. Some have clearly stated they do not think it would be in the interests of their service. In London, the 17-member fire authority will be replaced by a single commissioner, appointed by the Mayor, likely to occur in April 2018. Like the NHS and Fire Services, the Police are also under pressure. One “canary down the mine indicator” is the number of dropped emergency calls, which have more than doubled in the year to June 2017. The reasons are explored in an article this week in Policing Insight. Although some are accidental, the main reason given is an increase in non-crime calls, reflecting pressures in other services, including mental health and adult social care. This is concerning in the context of a loss of 40,000 police officers and more resources being drawn away from local policing into high profile demands such as terrorism and sexual exploitation.

Independent PCC Martin Surl of Gloucestershire has produced an excellent article on ways of increasing collaboration between the blue light services, but keeping their separate identities. Two more PCCs have pulled out as the process appeared to be losing momentum in the face of practical and political difficulties.

We at the LGA have been consistent and clear: combinations of blue light services should be locally determined, based only on a sound business case, and be supported by local communities, councils and stakeholders. You can read more about this on the LGA's fire and rescue pages.

The Secretary of State recently wrote with plans to appoint a single independent assessor to investigate each service for possible combination. The LGA Fire Service Management Committee Board Chairman and Independent group member, Cllr Ian Stephens, has written to the Secretary of State on our behalf. Each independent commission should, as a minimum, include lead members of fire, police, local government and financial expertise. “A view from only one would not provide a sufficiently broad view on the entity of the local case.” The Government is also planning external assessment of fire authorities, separate to our peer reviews. We shall be taking up these issues with the Minister in a meeting in October.

Collaboration has to be the right way forward, but with three hungry services in the same nest, and little on the plate, full combination of services may bring more risks than benefits.