Reposted from the Guardian
What do you do if you’re part of a government that believes in decimating the fire and rescue service as a means to making “efficiency savings”, only to find yourself regularly thwarted by elected councillors who sit on the local fire and rescue authority? Answer: abolish the fire and rescue authority.
A government paper published last week proposed just that: the scrapping of every fire and rescue authority in England. Control will instead be placed in the hands of local police and crime commissioners (PCCs) – and, in London, the mayor.
The Fire Brigades Union will oppose the move vigorously. The fire service and the police service are two fundamentally different organisations, each with a distinct identity and remit. The paths of firefighters and police officers occasionally cross at emergency incidents, something that inevitably fosters a mutual respect. But our roles are not interchangeable.
The fire and rescue service is primarily a humanitarian service and the public perceives us to be so. When we arrive at an incident, people are generally relieved. Unlike the police, we are not an arm of law enforcement. Rightly or wrongly, the public’s view of the police, and reception to them, is often more hostile.
The fire and rescue service has long cherished its independence, which contributes to the high esteem in which we are held by those whom we serve.
PCCs know nothing about the fire and rescue service, though this hasn’t prevented some from welcoming the government’s proposals. With their democratic legitimacy constantly in question (only 15% of voters bothered to take part in the 2012 PCC elections) and frequently derided for their apparent impotence, they may see the plans as an opportunity for a power grab and establish their worth in the eyes of voters. Once subsumed, the fire and rescue service would inevitably play second fiddle.
There would be serious operational concerns flowing from any attempt to conflate police and fire services, to say nothing of the political implications. The government’s proposals are undemocratic, authoritarian and retrograde. Their roots lie in the legitimate resistance displayed by concerned local councillors up and down the country who reject the Tories’ slash and burn agenda.
Since 2010, we have seen 5,000 firefighter jobs disappear and dozens of fire stations close. If the government had got its way unimpeded every time, these figures would be higher.
Local councillors, rooted in their neighbourhoods and only too aware of the devastating impact that can result from cuts to community fire cover, are often the last line of defence. Sometimes they put up a passionate fight, like when Boris Johnson tried to impose the most savage cuts to the London Fire Brigade since the second world war. The battle raged on for months. Members of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority fought him tooth and nail. In the end, their campaign forced him to trim his plans.
Impatient with such resistance, the Tories have embarked on a scorched earth strategy in relation to fire and rescue authorities. If you can’t beat them, abolish them.
These proposals, combined with the attempt via the trade union bill to undermine the ability of unions to take industrial action, amount to a pincer movement designed to nullify any political or industrial opposition to fire and rescue service cuts. They are dangerous and wrong, and we must fight them.