New Clause 5 — Regional Management Structures

Part of Fire and Rescue Services Bill – in the House of Commons at 6:57 pm on 15th March 2004.

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Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 6:57 pm, 15th March 2004

This wide-ranging group of amendments deals with combined fire authorities and much more besides. New clause 5 is drawn widely and touches on all fire authorities in England with the exception of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. It addresses the compulsory and arbitrary regionalisation of fire and rescue services on the basis of the existing regional development agency or Government office regions. The Select Committee looked at the Government's proposals on regionalisation and said in paragraph 81 of its report:

"The draft Framework emphasises the importance of local solutions to local needs, and highlights that there is no national blueprint. Yet Fire Services and Authorities appear to have no choice about adopting a regional approach."

We have always accepted that there is a case for harvesting the efficiencies of co-operation by doing certain things at supra-brigade level, but that must be a bottom-up process that starts with individual fire authorities collaborating together, not a top-down process in which the Secretary of State directs fire authorities to work in certain ways. It must be driven, not by the Secretary of State's demands but by the accountability of fire and rescue authorities to local taxpayers and by their best-value obligations. That is already happening, but not necessarily on the geographical boundaries that Ministers seek.

We accept the case for common procurement to ensure interoperability and the need to co-ordinate the response to non-conventional threats at a higher level than that of the individual brigade. None of those arguments, however, points to the Government-dictated organisation of fire and rescue services along the geographical lines of Government office regions. Fire and rescue services are a local government function and, under modernisation, are charged with becoming more of a community service. They must be managed and run closer to, not further away, from the local community that they serve. We must never forget that even in the environment in which, sadly, we now find ourselves, at least 90 per cent. of a fire and rescue authority's work will continue to be performing community-based traditional roles as well as the new, important role of fire prevention and education.

The Government have not produced a shred of evidence to establish the benefit to public safety of choosing the structure of existing Government office regions as the basis for imposing regional management boards, the use of those regions as the basis for the combined fire authorities of the future or, indeed, the reduction of the 49 existing control rooms to just nine in England. The Select Committee report, with which the Minister will be familiar, makes that clear at paragraph 79, which states:

"The key argument in the White Paper for a regional approach appears to be cost efficiency".

It goes on to say at paragraph 80:

"The White Paper does not explain how a regional approach would improve public safety, and help Government achieve its Service Delivery Agreement targets. Nor does it provide evidence that a regional approach would reduce bureaucratic overheads."

We need convincing evidence that the regions chosen by the Government are the optimum regions for fire and rescue purposes and will not merely reduce costs but meet the Government's avowed criterion of improving public safety.

The report on control rooms does not look at the possibility of any other configuration of those rooms. If a control room can handle adequately the entire south-east of England, with a population of 8 million, why has the Minister not considered combining the north-east region with Yorkshire and the Humber to create a region with a population of about 7.5 million? The Government have not explained why is it right and appropriate to have one control room in the north-east region with a population of 2.5 million spread over 8,000 sq km, and one control room in the south-east region with a population of 8 million spread over 19,500 sq km?

Resilience, which the Minister often talks about, will be achieved by common equipment and operating standards. The reduction of 49 control rooms to nine is about saving costs. There is nothing wrong with saving costs—I am not suggesting for a moment that that is not a good objective—but it is not the Secretary of State's role to deal with such matters in a locally based, locally accountable service. He should deal with resilience, but economy of operation should be dealt with under the best-value arrangements and through the accountability of democratically elected fire and rescue authorities to their local electorates. The truth is that the Deputy Prime Minister has been scratching around to try to find some powers for his pet regional tier to counter the repeated accusation that it is a hollow promise or empty box. The fire and rescue services are being regionalised by stealth through the regional management boards, the inevitable withering of the management capability of individual fire and rescue authorities and by the regional fire authorities that the Secretary of State will impose on any region that elects to have a regional assembly in a referendum. Incidentally, that demonstrates the untruth of the Government's repeated statement that any extra powers given to elected regional assemblies will be handed down from central Government, not drawn up from local government. Those extra powers will clearly come from a diminution of local government power and responsibility.

It is not appropriate to organise a vital, front-line emergency service around the political whim of a politician. We will never accept that public safety should be subordinated to the Government's regional agenda through the imposition of a sub-optimal regional structure. I emphasise again that we object not to the introduction of a supra-brigade level for certain purposes but to the transparently political use of existing Government office regions—[Interruption.] The Minister says that it is a lot of nonsense, but he has not produced a shred of evidence to support the argument that those are the optimum regions for the operational delivery of fire and rescue services.