Transcript of the speech as delivered.
I am delighted to be invited to speak here today.
Looking back at over the last few months we have seen fire rescue authorities exemplifying all that we rightly value in a public service. We clearly saw just how much we depend on fire and rescue as a high-performing emergency service in the public disorder that we saw on our streets this summer. The professionalism of fire crews during the riots was inspirational and I thank them all for their efforts.
As we look to the coming year we need to be prepared to be bolder, go further, and truly embed the new relationship that is the very heart of the Coalition Government’s ambition - putting power back where it belongs. This means power moving away from Whitehall, back to where it belongs - to communities and the locally elected councillors who represent them.
And doing this means letting go of some of the control. I am pleased to report a really good example of this - it looks like you and the heritage sector, including The National Trust and the Historic Houses Association, plan to undertake to improve compliance with the Fire Safety Order in listed buildings.
We strongly believe that the Fire Safety Order strikes the right balance in terms of affording an appropriate level of protection to the public and employees in the wide range of buildings in which they work, visit and live. But we do know that an inconsistency of application causes concerns, especially amongst smaller businesses such as bed and breakfasts.
In the bad old days Government would have stepped in with national guidance, but now, we trust you to come together at a national level, to work with the heritage sector to find practical solutions and to produce guidance owned by all of the sectors involved. This is Government helping and facilitating, but getting out of the way for the stuff you do best.
The Localism Act
The successful passage through parliament of what I can now proudly call the Localism Act is a milestone is another example of letting go of control and giving back power.
For fire and rescue authorities the Act will give greater freedoms and flexibilities. It provides stand alone fire and rescue authorities with a similar power to local authorities’ general power of competence; a wide ranging power related to their single-purpose status. We have also removed the existing burdensome charging arrangements so that adding new charging categories will now be subject to a local consultation.
The Act will also help increase transparency and accountability across Whitehall, local government and fire and rescue authorities, bringing greater visibility and openness to all, providing communities with the information they need to hold their elected representatives accountable.
I know you have been discussing the National Framework today and with the principles I have just outlined in mind I thought it would be helpful for me to touch on my intentions for the new National Framework and the consultation I plan to launch shortly.
The draft framework will mark a key milestone in resetting the relationship between Government and fire and rescue authorities. It will propose moving away from prescription, enabling fire and rescue authorities to deliver their services in a way that makes sense locally, whilst continuing to meet the wider needs of national resilience.
It is my intention for it to build on existing notable practice by fire and rescue authorities, and seek to promote accountability to communities, partnership working and data transparency.
The best thing central Government can do to improve the services provided by fire and rescue authorities and the professionals they employ is not to micro manage from the centre, but to provide an overall strategic direction and support, to empower and encourage them but not to interfere in the way in which they serve their communities.
In short Government needs to get out the way.
It is not the role of the draft framework to recite the entire role of fire and rescue authorities.
I would not expect the framework to repeat all of fire and rescue authorities’ duties in connection to the discharge of their functions, nor other duties such as those of an employer or public service provider.
These obligations are already set out in statute and I know that fire and rescue authorities are aware of them.
The priorities I intend to propose in the draft framework will be for fire and rescue authorities to:
- identify and assess the full range of fire and rescue related risks their area faces, make provision for prevention and protection activities and to 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.
I also envisage the draft framework to reflect our work together on national resilience. To:
- define what we mean by national resilience in relation to fire and rescue services
- determine the respective roles of fire and rescue authorities and Government in delivering national resilience; and
- identify the associated issues that arise in the context of cross border working such as interoperability within the service as a whole and multi-agency interoperability.
By national resilience, we mean resilience to those risks that need to be planned for on a strategic, national basis because their impacts and consequences would be of such scale and/or complexity that local resources would be overwhelmed, even when taking into account mutual aid arrangements, pooling and reconfiguration of resources and collective action.
We can only prepare effectively for such risks if we have a bottom-up approach to resilience, based on local expertise and knowledge.
Local leadership is essential to ensure that fire and rescue authorities have the necessary capability in place to keep their communities safe, and to respond to all incidents and emergencies, irrespective of whether the incidents and emergencies are of a local, cross-border or national nature.
We learnt from FiReControl that top-down Government-imposed solutions that do not have the full buy in and involvement of the sector do not work.
In the draft framework, we will commit to ensuring that appropriate, agreed strategic governance arrangements are in place to enable fire and rescue authorities to collectively engage with Government on national resilience issues.
We have begun discussing these and we will be working with partners over the coming months to ensure that these arrangements are in place by the time any new framework comes into force.
However, having freed up fire and rescue authorities from bureaucratic inspection regimes and tick box assessments, we will also be looking for improved scrutiny at the local level and assurance of delivery - both to government and communities. This is not unreasonable given the public safety nature of the service.
I mentioned FiReControl and wanted to briefly touch on the new scheme I announced in July 2011 to build national resilience and improve efficiency and inter-operability through locally-determined solutions and encourage collaboration.
Government is making £81 million available to fund locally initiated proposals for improving resilience and efficiency and a further £1.8 million to fund cross-cutting proposals for improving interoperability within the fire service as a whole.
We are currently examining bids and are on track to complete the bid review process early in the New Year.
We have taken tough decisions necessary to get public spending under control. No-one in this room is under any illusions about the wider economic challenges we face today.
You know that my view is that whilst, the funding settlement has been tough, it was a fair one in a difficult environment and I have met with many of you over the last year and listened to your concerns about funding.
Lets be clear. Over the last ten years the fire and rescue service has done a fantastic job at bringing the risk/number of fires down. Fires have decreased by more than a third in the last ten years. However the resource behind the service has not decreased at the same at the same rate - and while there is a strong case for protecting staffing levels at a good rate, is it reasonable that in a time of falling need that staffing levels have actually increased?
Innovative fire and rescue authorities have already shown that it is possible to make efficiency savings without impacting on the outcomes they deliver for their local communities and here we need for all fire and rescue authorities to start looking to how they can achieve these same outcomes.
Local Government Resource Review
Our proposals for business rates retention represent a fundamental shift in the way local authorities are funded, freeing councils from dependence upon central Government grant and giving them a strong financial incentive to drive local economic growth.
We have consulted upon options for the treatment of fire and rescue authorities in the proposed system of business rates retention and are carefully considering the responses. I can assure you that we will take account of all submissions that fire and rescue services have made as we consider the responses to the consultation.
We also recently consulted on the distribution of capital grant funding. We sought views on the proposal that future funding be distributed based on a combination of:
- an efficiency fund, administered via a bidding process; and
- A pro rata distribution using the current distribution method.
We have considered the views of the sector and have decided to give fire and rescue authorities more time to prepare bids for capital. Therefore the current pro rata distribution method will remain in place for 2012-13.
However, subsequent to this, the allocation of capital will be a combination of distribution and bids with a one off bidding round for 2013-15 funds.
This decision means that fire and rescue authorities will have longer to consider and plan their bids that can target efficiency savings while demonstrating value for money and we will publish more detailed guidance for the bidding in the New Year.
There is no doubt that these are challenging times. Your drive and your expertise are essential to meeting the challenges we face. So I welcome the start you have made, and look forward to continuing to work with you in the spirit with which you have begun.