By Paul Geater, local government correspondent
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
THE merger of the fire services in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire could take a major step forward today – with brigade union officials claiming it could help save front-line jobs.
Senior Suffolk county councillors will meet this morning and are expected to ask for a full business case on the cost-cutting proposal, which could see a new super-brigade of more than 1,000 full-time and retained firefighters formed within two years.
The potential savings are still not clear because there would need to be significant reorganisation alongside any merger – especially in Suffolk.
But during the only other merger of its kind in the country – of Devon and Somerset fires services in 2007 – around 150 non-uniformed posts were cut, although around 60 were later reinstated.
Suffolk’s FBU chairman Andy Vingoe said his members still felt that merging the administrations could be the best way to preserve frontline fire cover. But he felt differences would remain between the two counties.
He said: “The members do not seem to be that concerned about the proposed merger because they feel it might be the best way to safeguard the frontline service.
“There have been cuts over the years and we know budgets are under pressure so many feel this could help retain the current level of service.”
“From what we have seen with the control room it does look as if Cambridgeshire would be in the driving seat. It is a larger authority (it includes Peterborough), but I think the two counties would have to be run as separate districts under one authority.”
Meanwhile, deputy county fire officer Mark Hardingham said if the county opted for full merger there would need to be considerable changes to its administration. There are currently 67 non-uniformed administrative staff employed by the fire service.
But it relies on other county council or Customer Service Direct staff for many of its functions – including Human Resources and IT.
Cambridgeshire Fire Authority currently has 122 administrative staff handling all back-office functions. That authority is not part of the county council because it includes the Peterborough area, which is a unitary authority.
Mr Hardingham said: “There are similarities in that Devon was a stand-alone fire authority and Somerset was a county council department – but that merger came five years ago in a different climate. Also, in that case, two control centres were retained until just this year. We have already merged our control centre with that in Cambridgeshire.”
The Devon and Somerset authority covers an area that stretches from the outskirts of Bristol to Plymouth. However while the services became a single authority, the Fire Brigades Union said that in a practical sense they retained separate identities.
Trevor French, its brigade FBU secretary, said: “The two counties use different breathing apparatus equipment and there are different policies for how fires are dealt with.”
The chief fire officer in the combined Devon and Somerset Authority is Lee Howell, who had been head of Suffolk’s fire authority for five years.
Suffolk County Council’s cabinet will meet today to discuss a number of options for the future of the service, with its favoured option being to pursue a full business case for full merger. An alternative option is increased collaboration without merger.
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