Speech

Local Government Association annual fire conference 2011: the future of fire

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Transcript of the speech as delivered. Thank you for inviting me to be here today. The Fire and Rescue Service is at the heart of ensuring…


Transcript of the speech as delivered.

Thank you for inviting me to be here today. The Fire and Rescue Service is at the heart of ensuring public safety and is critical to the UK’s resilience against the risks of major incidents. I believe we have a fire and rescue service we can be proud of.

The Services’ vital roles encompass not only your historic function in fighting fires but also responding to road traffic collisions, terrorism, floods and other emergencies, your hugely important prevention and protection function, and proven effective partnering with other local agencies in tackling the wider needs of communities.

I mentioned flooding and it would be remiss of me not to take the opportunity to mention Exercise Watermark which is happening this week and I am sure many of you will be involved in some capacity as I myself am.

The Role of the Fire and Rescue Service

But when we look across the piece we can be in no doubt that the work which fire and rescue services do to protect and prevent loss of life and property within our communities makes a real difference. In England, we have a strong record in fire prevention, a record that we can be justifiably proud of.

The latest fire statistics are very encouraging indeed. Fire deaths in the home in England have halved since the 1980s: around 210 people have died in accidental dwelling fires in England over each of the past few years (2006/07-2009/10, England).

Of course, one fire death will always be one too many, but this is a terrific achievement, especially when you consider that we have an ageing population which continues to grow, leaving increasing numbers of people vulnerable to risk from fire due to age and infirmity.

We want to build on these achievements and fire prevention and community safety will remain at the core of our policy objectives.

For example, we recognise the immense value a properly maintained smoke alarms adds to life safety and are pleased to have been able to continue to run the Fire Kills campaign, to underpin and support local Fire and Rescue Service initiatives.

The introduction of fire safer cigarettes across Europe is an important example of this. We fully support the European Commission’s efforts in developing a safety standard and test method for reduced ignition cigarettes and referencing this to ensure that, from November 2011 all cigarettes placed on the European market are compliant with this standard.

We estimate that this will save - with almost immediate effect - between 25 and 64 lives per year in England alone, and of course, many more across the whole of the Union. We are therefore committed to continuing constructive work with the UK tobacco manufacturers to ensure the necessary arrangements are in place to guarantee compliance with the new standard with effect from November this year.

But we must recognise that Government cannot - nor should attempt - do it all. We do not have the insight or expertise to develop and implement tailored interventions based on the specific needs or aspirations of your local communities.

That is why we are keen to maintain our partnership approach with local Fire and Rescue Services, and others engaged in delivering public safety, who are in many cases, much better placed to make the links necessary to deliver locally sustainable safety outcomes.

I encourage you all, particularly in these challenging times, to maintain your community safety focus, working together, and where effective sharing resources with other local agencies, to identify and target those within your communities who are most at risk from preventable fires.

It is not just at home where our Fire and Rescue Services make such an impact either. We have also seen great resilience in responding to international catastrophes such as the recent devastating earthquake in New Zealand. In response to requests from the New Zealand Government a UK International Search and Rescue team, of 61 personnel, including 56 Fire and Rescue Services staff and 5 medical personnel, with a range of specialist search and rescue equipment travelled to Christchurch to work alongside New Zealand Engineers and Medical Staff to locate and recover victims.

And just recently the Chief Fire and Rescue Advisor travelled to Iraq to meet with the Interior Minister, senior officers and fire-fighters to discuss safety following the devastating fire at the Soma Hotel in Suleymaniya where 34 people lost their lives.

So, as we look to the future, it is important that we recognise the range and depth of work undertaken by Fire and Rescue Services. It is greatly valued, and an exemplar of what responsive, safety focused public services are all about.

Coalition Government Vision

However times are changing. In my first speech as the Fire and Rescue Minister back in Harrogate in June 2010 I talked of the need to reset the relationship between central and local government. I make no apology for making the same point again here today. If anything I am now even more convinced of this, and to make this happen we need to all play our part.

Just the other week the Prime Minister spoke of the Big Society - rebuilding responsibility and giving people more control over their lives. But he also said that it doesn’t just apply in areas like volunteering. It’s as relevant when it comes to public services and the decentralisation of power to the lowest possible level.

Government will soon publish a White Paper setting out our approach to public service reform, putting in place principles that will signal the end of the top-down, take-what-you’re-given model of public services, dismantling Big Government and building the Big Society in its place.

Our ambition is to drive the transfer of power away from Whitehall to people and communities creating the conditions which energise and empower individuals, communities and businesses to build successful neighbourhoods. Public service decentralised and determined by users.

One word - Localism. I know that you will have heard me speak on this before and I have no doubt you will hear me speak on it again!

Through the Localism Bill central government is already putting in place means to remove barriers and give communities greater rights and powers of intervention. For example measures giving communities a right to buy assets and to veto excessive council tax rises.

Local Government will have a general power of competence so they can act in the interests of their communities with confidence. Standalone Fire and Rescue authorities will get comparable powers allowing them to carry out any activity as long as it is connected with any of their functions as a Fire and Rescue Authority.

We are freeing Fire and Rescue Authorities from bureaucracy, and want to go further. We want to free them from a focus on accounting to central government for local performance and priorities. Free them so that they can build on the work in their communities, to create a new and stronger relationship of influence and accountability with citizens.

As we free up Fire and Rescue Authorities I think it also helpful to say a few words here on the Government’s wider regulatory policy.

In these difficult times, an important part of the Government’s strategy for financial growth is to support business by adopting a deregulatory policy.

Regulation is therefore a last resort. This Government will not add to the regulatory burden unless it can be demonstrated to be the only option for delivering our policy objectives. Even in these limited circumstances, the introduction of the ‘one-in-one-out’ rule means that before any new regulation is introduced, the costs must be fully justified through an impact assessment and an existing regulatory burden must be identified and removed so that the overall amount of regulation does not increase.

Furthermore on Monday we announced a comprehensive review of the statutory duties placed on local authorities by central government. This is a further step in the drive to remove centrally imposed prescription and burdens and free councils up to meet the needs of their communities.

Economic Environment and Funding

As we look to the future I am aware that I have already frequently touched on the economic challenge which is the backdrop against which we are all working.

Let me quickly recap - the unprecedented public sector deficit means that all layers of government have difficult decisions to make. I know fire professionals understand the role they have to play in helping to reduce the deficit, building a stronger and safer society, and sustainable Fire and Rescue Service; and I recognise that you are also dealing with a range of issues around the future of pay and pensions.

However, the fire and rescue service has been given some protection in the recent settlement. Overall, single purpose Fire and Rescue Authorities will see a reduction in revenue spending power, taking into account grants from central government and council tax, of 2.2 per cent in 2011-12 and 0.5 per cent in 2012-13.

To achieve this level of savings, the Fire and Rescue Service will need to increase efficiency and deliver reform. I know many of you have already started planning. However, as I have said before, I do believe these savings should be achievable without affecting the quality and breadth of frontline services, through increased efficiency in areas such as:

  • flexible staffing arrangements
  • improved sickness management
  • pay restraint and recruitment freezes
  • shared services/back office functions
  • improved procurement
  • sharing Chief Officers and other senior staff
  • voluntary amalgamations between Fire and Rescue Authorities. (For which a practical guide is available on our Department website.)

I am pleased to see that these efficiency themes have helped shape your conference and I am sure there will be some innovative ideas being shared. However as you look to make the savings needed it will of course be for you individually to decide how to make savings locally. You need to continue putting in place plans, and acting on them, for both short and long term.

I have heard concerns that counties are facing higher reductions than single-service authorities and plan to pass reductions onto fire in years one and two. Of course this is a local decision for County councils to determine - but I want to assure you that I am aware and have acted upon this.

I wrote out to county council leaders on the 17 January, setting out the Government’s aim, which is for Fire and Rescue Services to be given the time to implement changes such that reductions in the quality of front-line services can be avoided. Reductions in funding for Fire and Rescue Services have been less than those applied to local authorities in general. We would therefore hope this is reflected in County Council budgets when they are set.

Capital grant funding has increased from £45m in 2010/11 to £70m in 2011-12. We announced 2010-11 allocations alongside the local Government Settlement to enable you to plan for the next year. The increased capital grant recognises the need for fire and rescue authorities to maintain their investment in capital assets and the potential for making efficiency savings at a time when resource budgets are under greater pressure.

At a time of reducing capital funding it is even more important that this funding is targeted to the areas that will deliver greatest value for money. That’s why we are currently considering a number of options for distributing future years’ capital funding, and will consult on the best way to focus capital funding to drive efficiencies and reform. I hope that some good ideas have come out of this key conference. For example, I would be interested to hear how strategic asset management plans are being used to drive through service delivery changes. Now is the time for innovative plans.

The Local Government Resource Review will consider options to enable councils to retain their locally-raised business rates. Such an approach will help set free many local councils from dependency on central funding and provide incentives, through the business rates system, for them to promote economic growth.

The Review, which will deliver proposals by July this year, will consider how we could manage the distributional impacts of any new arrangements, including how to fund councils, such as Fire and Rescue authorities, which do not collect business rates.

On future funding, I recognises the importance of, and am committed to doing all I can to provide a clear picture of the resources that will be available beyond 2012/13 as soon as possible, subject to the review, but that the lack of clarity that exists at the moment should not prevent you from preparing for lower levels of funding.

Challenging times of change provide us with the impetus to seek out new opportunities and be innovative in the way we deliver for our communities and neighbourhoods.

Fire and Rescue Service Future Vision

Strong local leadership is needed going forward giving full and transparent accountability back to the communities you serve The Government’s role is to work in partnership with you to set strategic direction, but you will need to take ownership of your own agenda and drive change within your ranks.

When I was appointed as the Minister for the Fire and Rescue Service I seized the opportunity to invite the wider Fire and Rescue Sector to undertake the Fire Futures review.

My intention from the outset was that Fire Futures should signal a new way of working - enabling those at the front line and behind the scenes to help set the agenda and tell government what is important in delivering it. I have been impressed by the energy and commitment of the entire sector in rising to this challenge.

Fire Futures is providing a successful and timely wide ranging review of Fire and Rescue Services as they stand, the challenges and opportunities ahead, and has offered a broad spectrum of ideas and proposals for the future.

We will be formally responding to the Fire Future reports shortly but as part of this, as I have said we need to reset the relationship - what is already clear is that we in Government want to enable change and decentralisation; we don’t intend to impose or manage new ways of working from the centre.

My expectation is therefore that the majority of the ideas coming through Fire Futures are for the wider sector to take forward as it sees fit - indeed some activities have already been picked and run with by the sector - such as the Fire Community Forum.

There needs to be fully accountable local services with local responsibility for decisions and performance ensuring appropriate funding and empower change to deliver reform. There needs to be a clear framework for local services and local resilience with clarity between roles in local and national resilience.

As the Department now responsible for developing, implementing and managing resilience below the national level and supporting the delivery of national resilience in England we will be putting in place a new approach reflecting the shift of priorities brought about by the Coalition Government.

But, Let me be clear, the safety and security of our citizens is of paramount importance to Government and central to this is the role of the Fire and Rescue Service in delivering National Resilience. The Governments key interest will be in ensuring that there are robust arrangements in place. We will use the Fire Future response as an opportunity to begin our dialogue together on national resilience next steps.

Future of Control Room Services

Of course we cannot ignore the closure of the FiReControl project in talking about national resilience. As you know, last summer I gave the strongest possible message to the main IT contractor EADS that they must deliver to time, cost and quality.

However, as the weeks passed, it became clear that they could not deliver the project requirements to an acceptable timeframe. And in December we decided that enough was enough. That is history. But it does leave a question of whether a potential resilience deficit remains.

This is one of the questions we are asking in the current consultation on the future of fire and rescue control services - to which I hope you will all take the opportunity to respond. Are the original objectives of improved resilience, efficiency and technology available to fire and rescue services still valid, and how might we achieve them now?

I have said clearly that we will not be imposing a solution on fire and rescue authorities. And feedback so far suggests that technology upgrades you have already made, together with plans you are developing, will go some way to meeting that deficit.

Many are talking of closer collaboration and even sharing services - an increasingly common route in the wider local government landscape to achieve better and more efficient delivery.

It is a challenge - but these are challenging times. I am confident that you will take the opportunity to build resilience, efficiency and technological advance by choice, from the solid foundation of your experience and expertise - from the bottom up, rather than central government imposing unwanted solutions from the top down.

Conclusion

We are in a period of unprecedented change. This is a potentially huge moment - a defining moment - a moment of real opportunity. If we are all to rise to these challenges, we can surely make the most progress by finding the common ground, listening and learning from each other.

It’s time to reset the relationship and as a trusted and highly effective provider of critical services, your contribution cannot be underestimated.

Thank you