Fire Minister Brandon Lewis addresses the Chief Fire Officers Association Conference.
I am delighted to be here today in my second full week in my new job. I’d like congratulate Vij (Randeniya) on his election as the new CFOA President and thank Lee (Howell) for all his work as part of the presidential team.
I would like to put on record my thanks to fire and rescue authorities for the important role they played in torch relays across the United Kingdom and during the Olympic and Paralympics Games.
Although the role that fire and rescue authorities played has gone almost unnoticed in the public eye, the effort and resources which were put in place were greatly appreciated across Government. I am pleased that a number of fire and rescue authority staff who made a significant contribution in delivery of services will be receiving recognition in the form of a commemorative medallion.
I’d also like to play tribute to Bob Neill, who I know had a deep understanding of the issues you face, a huge knowledge of the sector, and who worked closely with you on resetting the relationship between central and local government, devolving power and responsibility to the front line professionals, to communities and their local elected representatives - where it rightly sits.
I am very pleased to have been given this brief and I look forward to working with you and your elected members in the coming weeks, months and, hopefully, years. I’m particularly pleased to say that my new brief maintains the link between fire and rescue and local government. Alongside my fire responsibilities I am also local government Minister. This is particularly important to me as I am a keen proponent of local determination on service delivery, on prioritisation and on spending decisions. Keeping the fire and local government link is vital in this and I am sure you will be pleased to hear that I intend to continue Bob’s good work here, embedding localism, continuing the integration of funding via the business rates system, and more importantly, getting out of the way to let you do what you do best.
We will of course, continue to support you where it is appropriate. Thankfully, the number of fires and associated fatalities and injuries continue to fall. The latest statistics show fire deaths in the home have more than halved in the last twenty years - and fell 12 per cent last year.
This is a fantastic achievement and the Fire Kills campaign is a great example of how effective a partnership between Government and local fire and rescue authorities can be. The campaign’s annual report for 2011/12 was published last week. It clearly demonstrates the range and impact of fire prevention activity being delivered by both the Department through its media campaign, and by its partners. The outstanding success of this campaign is, as you know, in large part due to the sterling, and often innovative, work undertaken at the local level to embed its fire safety messages with both the general public, and with those who may be especially vulnerable to the risks from fire.
Ultimately, the commitment of you and your local partners to the prevention agenda saves lives and resources. It ensures that our communities are safer places, less exposed to the destruction and devastation caused by fire.
The challenge must now be to maintain that clear focus on fire prevention, community safety and resilience. Working together allows us to deliver consistent safety messages, tailoring and targeting the campaign to maximise its effectiveness at the local level.
Next month, the Fire Kills campaign will again be running the hugely successful national advertising campaign to encourage everyone to test that their smoke alarms are working when changing their clocks. I’m sure you’ll already be considering how best to support this at the local level.
By working together we have the opportunity to really drive home the importance of fire safe behaviour and maintain the downward trend on fire deaths. Given its impact, I am committed to maintaining a high profile focus on community fire prevention and safety activity.
Prevention activity doesn’t just relate to improving fire safety. We have a model for civil contingency delivery that fits with our views of localism: planning and action at local level based on local risks and with partners having local accountability to make your localities more resilient places.
I know fire and rescue authorities are increasingly providing strategic leadership to local multi-agency emergency planning activity, with Chief Fire Officers chairing four of England’s 38 local resilience forums.
This means fire and rescue authorities working with partners locally to better identify and mitigate complex resilience risks that could disrupt everyday life; including flooding, severe winter weather, disruption to fuel supplies or security threats. I hope, as I’m sure you do, that your role in responding to these types of emergencies is not called upon. But in my role as Minister for fire, resilience and emergencies I am keen to hear more about the good examples of the role of fire and rescue authorities in local multi-agency planning that strengthens our ability to quickly respond and recover from disruptive events.
A clear vision for local delivery: the national framework
At the very heart of the Government’s ambition is putting power back where it belongs - in communities and with the locally elected councilors who represent them.
Fire and rescue authorities have been empowered with greater freedoms and flexibilities. You now have general powers of competence and an equivalent general power along with the ability to consult locally to allow charging for additional activities including the option for charging for persistent false reports. These are good examples of central Government stepping back and letting you get on with your job.
The Fire and Rescue National Framework is currently proceeding through parliament, and will be fully in force in October this year. I’ve come to it new. But I like what I see. For me, it embodies the right approach; setting high level principles instead of detailed requirements - it’s ‘what’ not ‘how’. I am pleased to hear that CFOA has welcomed this document. I would also like to thank you for the support and advice I understand you gave to officials as part of the working group. I think we should all be proud of the Framework, one that moves away from prescription to empowerment, and one that clearly sets out three bold priorities for fire and rescue authorities to:
- identify and assess the full range of foreseeable fire and rescue related risks their areas face, make provision for prevention and protection activities and respond to incidents appropriately
- work in partnership with their communities and a wide range of partners locally and nationally to deliver their service; and
- be accountable to communities for the service they provide.
It goes without saying that this includes the business community. I firmly believe that businesses have the right to expect that those enforcing regulatory compliance do so in accordance with the fundamental principles of better regulation. I know that CFOA are keen to address shortcomings in this area and to lead work at the local level to develop fire safety audit and enforcement responsibilities to reflect more closely the aspirations that businesses have. Essentially, this means for helpful, proportionate and consistent advice on compliance.
Given that economic growth and business support is our number one priority, I commend you for your approach and look forward to a positive progression of this significant tranche of work.
Our national resilience to major fire and rescue related risks remains a priority for government. But we can only do this together, through true partnership, working across all local and national responders.
That is why we have put in place the Fire and Rescue Strategic Resilience Board, and it is already bringing key partners together to consider national resilience issues. Of course, government will continue to set the strategic direction, but our approach to national resilience must be based on and drawn from local capability alongside your professional expertise.
We can only prepare effectively if we have an approach to resilience based on local expertise and knowledge. Communities rightly expect their local fire and rescue authorities to play their part in keeping the country safe; every major emergency originates as a local emergency and being able to plan effectively for all incidents and emergencies, irrespective of whether they are of a local, cross-border or national nature, is essential.
In delivering for your communities, you need to engage them - give them a real understanding of the risks being faced and the full range of what you are doing so they can better understand why you make the decisions you do.
We all know there are some increasingly tough decisions to be made on how best to allocate prevention, protection and operational resources locally - this needs to be done in a way that meets community aspirations in an open and consultative way.
By giving communities a voice, you give them a choice:
- choice to make their views known on whether their priorities are the same as yours
- choice to come up with new ideas on service provision
- choice to challenge you on these issues
Going further, we are today launching a consultation on assurance statements, a mechanism for showing the public how the services they provide are run by their authorities. I know that some of you have mixed feelings on such statements. But for me this is about demonstrating a commitment to greater openness, showing the taxpayer how their money (including council tax) is spent, enabling communities to hold their authorities to account over how they spend the public’s money and for the decisions that they make. And some of you are already doing it very well. Every aspect of council business - including the decisions they make for the delivery of fire and rescue - should be open to public scrutiny including senior pay, councillor expenses and local services.
I am of course mindful of the financial backdrop we all face. We have taken tough decisions necessary to reduce the budget deficit that we inherited from the last administration. Every bit of the public sector needs to do its bit to help, and local government accounts for a quarter of the public sector.
I value the incredibly important service that fire and rescue authorities deliver for local communities, and the part they play in national resilience. Despite the need to cut the national deficit, fire and rescue, as a frontline emergency service, has been given funding protection with reductions back-loaded to give more time for sensible savings to be made and reductions applied to fire and rescue authorities have been less than those applied to local authorities in general.
You will know that we are currently consulting upon plans for 2013-15 funding as part of the business rates retention scheme - this consultation is due to close on the 24th of September and I know that many of you have already engaged in the process. I would urge those whose voices have not yet been heard to ensure they make their views known.
I know that you are anxious to see what funding might look like from 2013, but I’m sure you will appreciate that I cannot pre-empt the consultation, nor can I pre-empt the announcements on funding for 2013/14, which I expect to be made in December in the usual way.
Despite the challenges, or maybe because of them, I know that you as the professional leaders for the fire and rescue sector are making great strides in efficiency. You have well established processes in place to use integrated risk management plans to make strategic and operational decisions on the siting of fire stations, the staffing and equipping of such stations, and hours of operation of each station. You are looking at your own service configuration to delivering services in a new environment. Some of you are looking at how you use your estate, I know for example that Merseyside are working with the police to share headquarters, that partners in the North West and partners in the South are sharing control rooms.
Just last week I visited my local constituency fire and rescue authority, Norfolk, who updated me on their Combined fire and rescue, police and ambulance station in Sheringham which officially opened in January this year.
Sharing buildings is also bringing collaboration on other matters, and I am sure that all of you are looking outside your own sector to see how the country’s national emergency services estate could be better used - sharing facilities and back office services. I know that you are increasingly working with the Ambulance Service and that inter-agency collaborations and interoperability are becoming increasingly important. I’m sure there are ways that we can work and share with the Ambulance Service and other partners and not only improve the services we deliver but also become more efficient.
Well, in 2 weeks, you can imagine that I am only just scratching the surface of what your issues are. I have already met with Cllr Kay Hammond, who as you know is the new Chair of the Fire Services Management Committee. I outlined to Cllr Hammond that I want to strengthen my engagement with your elected politicians, and I have made clear that as well as having a more regular engagement with the FSMC, I will want to meet chairs and members of fire and rescue authorities. I know that as the professional leadership of the sector you will want to support your councilors in meetings with me.
I also want to broaden my engagement with CFOA as the representative body for senior professionals. I will be meeting with your president, vice-president and vice-president elect. After this I want my engagement to be with the Board and the Council - I want to hear a broad range of views, and I will make time to engage with you on a regular basis and intend to get out and about visiting as many of your areas as possible.
The National Framework specifically embeds the key role of the post of the Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser who provides professional, independent advice both to senior officials and Ministers. The post was first created in 2007 with Sir Ken Knight filling the position since that time. However, earlier this year Ken indicated that, having completed five years, and with the Olympics behind us it was the right time to move on.
Having served in Fire and Rescue for over 40 years, including positions as Chief Fire Officer of County, Combined and Metropolitan Fire Authorities as well as the Fire Commissioner for London, Ken has provided consistent and professional advice to my predecessors as he continues to give me. I have hugely valued his input in my first weeks.
The Secretary of State and I recognise the value and importance of professional advice within the Department and therefore we will shortly be advertising for Ken’s successor whilst I am delighted that Ken has agreed to remain in post until the appointment is made. I hope that senior professionals will take an interest in the post, seeing it as an opportunity to utilise their knowledge and experience to support officials and Ministers.
We will also be continue to provide opportunities for secondments from the sector to contribute professional views to the development of government policy and give individuals a chance to develop and to experience the workings of government. I hope you will see DCLG as a good place to send your brightest officers as a key part of their career progression.
There will be other opportunities to say thank you to Ken but I wanted to place on record the Government’s appreciation for the support and advice he has given through the last challenging five years, and of course the previous 41 years in fire and rescue.
I hope that I have given you a clear indication of where my priorities lie. I recognise that there are tough times ahead but I believe fire and rescue authorities and Chief Fire Officers can provide the leadership needed to continue to deliver a trusted and excellent public service. A new and more collaborative national-local relationship provides an opportunity for fire and rescue authorities, and organisations like CFOA, to play an ever stronger part in setting the agenda and in keeping our communities and our nation safe. I look forward to working with you all. Fire and rescue services are hugely respected in the UK and have the ability to reach high.