By Elliot Furniss
Tuesday, May 8, 2012
THE clearest sign yet that Suffolk and Cambridgeshire’s fire services are poised for a full merger can be revealed by the EADT today.
A new report detailing the benefits and risks for Suffolk of such a move has been drawn up – and makes it clear that merger is probably the best option for the fire service as it tries to cope with an ever-tightening budget.
If approved after a consultation, a new super-brigade could be formed within the next two years, consisting of more than 1,000 full-time and retained firefighters.
However, the Fire Brigades’ Union voiced concerns last night that the move could result in a loss of local accountability in Suffolk, and that the county could end up bearing the brunt of any “economies of scale”.
Suffolk County Council’s cabinet it set to examine in detail proposals for the merger at a meeting next week. The report recommends a business case for the full collaboration, seen as the best way forward, be prepared by the autumn.
Despite cutting the number of its full-time uniformed staff by 50 and reducing its operating costs across the board, Suffolk County Fire and Rescue Service (SCFRS) is still under pressure to make more savings.
However, Keith Handscomb, regional representative of the FBU, said a full merger could be bad news for Suffolk – suggesting any merged service would be very much led by Cambridgeshire.
“Our fear is the economies of scale would be borne by Suffolk and the people of Suffolk,” he said.
He also claimed there could be a lack of local accountability when key decisions were made about the future of the service.
The Suffolk service has already reduced the number of full-time firefighters from 275 to 224 and must make a further 15 reductions.
Cambridgeshire currently has 272 full-time firefighters out of a workforce of 789.
Suffolk has 441 on-call firefighters and Cambridgeshire 360 and the services already share a 999 control room.
In the “options appraisal report” which will be put to the cabinet at its meeting next week, head of service development Roger Hopkins gave the “full collaboration” route the strongest backing.
He said: “A voluntary combination between the two services offers the greatest potential benefits of the options considered.
“The single political and managerial structures present the most appropriate means with which to engage stakeholders and to secure efficiency savings whilst maintaining frontline services.
“However it is clear that some of the risks associated with this option are greater than those of the other options and these will require further examination if this option is to be developed.”
The council will also explore an alternative approach that would see an increased level of collaboration but without a full merger.
If both Suffolk and Cambridge Fire Authorities agree with the recommendations at their meetings on May 24, work will begin on the joint development of the business case.
An interim business case will be presented at the cabinet’s meeting in September and should the combination of Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire Peterborough Fire Authorities be identified as the preferred option, a 12-week consultation period will take place.
The full business case, including the outcomes of the public consultation, will be brought to cabinet and then full council in early 2013.
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