By Paul Geater, local government correspondent
Friday, March 30, 2012
UNION bosses in Suffolk believe a merger with neighbouring Cambridgeshire Fire Authority could be the best way to safeguard front-line firefighters.
County FBU chairman Andy Vingoe claimed the current service was “top heavy” and a merger could mean sharing management and protecting the strength of crews across the region.
But he is demanding much more information before the union gives any merger the green light.
The Cambridge and Peterborough Fire Authority will today discuss moves towards a closer relationship with Suffolk following the opening of a joint control centre in Cambridgeshire at the end of last year.
One of the options on the table is a full merger – although the earliest this could be achieved would be May 2014.
Mr Vingoe said the union was not surprised the debate was starting adding that it had been on the cards since the control centres were merged in October.
He said: “We’re not going to form a view without much more information, but the fact is that with all the cutbacks of recent years the service has been left rather top-heavy.
“If that means the best option is to merge with another authority and have a joint management to preserve front-line firefighting jobs then we would not oppose that.”
The union had been warned that future spending cuts could have a major impact on the fire service and was keen to ensure that cover was retained on the ground as much as possible.
Suffolk chief fire officer Andy Fry said full merger was only one of the options that was under consideration.
He said the authority needed to make significant financial savings, and looking at further co-operation with another fire service like that in Cambridgeshire would enable that to happen.
There were three possible results: Closer co-operation, by adopting joint protocols and service standards; Closer co-operation and sharing some managers and specialist teams: Full merger.
Mr Fry said: “There is a long way to go before anything is settled, any merger would have to be backed by the people of both Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, be shown to be financially sound, and get the approval of the Secretary of State.”
County councillor with responsibility for the fire service Colin Spence said his over-riding aim was to retain a good level of fire cover for the county.
He said: “We cannot give any cast-iron guarantees but I’ve always said the aim is to keep the same number of fires stations and appliances available to offer cover to the people of Suffolk.
“Nothing will be done to put that at risk, but we do need to look at options of cutting costs – but it is very early days to be talking about a full merger.”
He pointed out that Suffolk and Cambridgeshire fire services were two of the smaller ones in the country, and were of a similar size so they would fit together well.
Suffolk’s cabinet is expected to discuss the issue in the summer, and if it is decided to look further there would be a three-month public consultation at the end of this year or into 2013.
Only if that is favourable, and the finance adds up, would the proposal be sent to the Secretary of State for Local Government, currently Eric Pickles, for a final decision.
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