Labour councillors believe that Bucks Fire and Rescue Service is only one major incident from catastrophic failure in Milton Keynes as austerity is stretching the service to breaking point.
The concerns come after several accounts that stations in MK are being routinely taken out of service because staffing levels across the county are so low. Last week Great Holm station was closed so that firefighters could transfer to Aylesbury to maintain cover in central Buckinghamshire. Fire sources suggest that only around 30 of around 45 staff required for a full service were available for duty. Sources suggest this is happening on an increasingly regular basis.
A number of reports to the Annual General Meeting of the Conservative controlled Buckinghamshire & Milton Keynes Fire Authority have highlighted the operational and financial difficulties facing the blue light service.
An independent report by local authority accountant body CIPFA highlighted that the combined fire authority has one of the fewest number of fire stations in the country, manned by one of the lowest levels of full time fire fighters. The authority has had to cut full time staff and move relying on retained fire fighters. However the report noted that the authority has one of the lowest levels of retained fire fighters, and it is struggling to fill vacant positions, leaving the service very thinly stretched. The report also highlighted that even when open, stations in our area have one of the lowest staff ratios in the country, with an average crew of 12 when the national average is 14.
Another report highlighted that over the coming 3 years the service faced a £1.6m shortfall in funding due to cuts. The current plan for the authority is to use reserves to cover the shortfall, but that after 3 years, all reserves will be exhausted. The alternative is cuts to an already stretched service.
Fire authority member and Leader of MK Council Cllr Pete Marland is concerned that so far the service has been lucky, but that unless concerns are taken seriously a major failure of the service will happen during an emergency.
Cllr Marland said: “The Tory Government has cut £165m from fire services since 2010 as part of their austerity measures. If that is combined with Conservative mismanagement at a local level on the Authority such as foolishly cutting the precept 4 years ago and the plan to run a Northamptonshire-style budget using reserves, I fear that the service is one major incident away from a catastrophic failure.”
He continued: “We have reached a point where Milton Keynes stations are being routinely closed and staff transferred to other stations to make up shortfalls in staffing numbers. The service is operating on a skeleton basis. I fear if Great Holm station is closed as planned, this will only get worse. The service is struggling to keep existing firefighters and while it has moved to an operating model of fewer full time staff to cope with cuts, it is simply not operating with enough retained staff to make that model work properly. I genuinely believe we are in a situation where we have been lucky, but I fear a situation where there is a major incident in two parts of the service area on a night when cover stretched. It would only take something to happen in the M1 at the same time as a major fire, and the service will fail if cover from other authorities are operational at the same time. It is hugely concerning. Lives are at risk.”
He concluded: “The situation is clearly very serious. The Tory members of the authority need to understand that it is not just a matter of budgets, but some of their decisions have made Bucks Fire Service wobble. I worry about the resilience of the service in an emergency. The question is whether the next Prime Minister, likely to be Boris Johnson who when he was Mayor of London decimated the fire service there, will care and whether they will stand up to him, and whether they are capable of really understanding that the path they have taken so far needs to be reconsidered?”