I never thought that I would be staring at four hours of debate on fire services in south-east Northumberland. This is obviously a narrow subject, but I am sure that some Members will try to get in to speak in any case.
I have raised this issue before on the Floor of the House, in a debate on the fire and rescue service initiated by the Opposition. The question involves south-east Northumberland and the loss of four fire stations. I have a picture of them here, and some are fairly new. The one in Cramlington was built only nine years ago, while the one in Blyth was built just as I was elected, nearly 18 years ago. I remember it well. The other two are a bit older—25 and, I think, 26 years old.
These fire stations are in the townships of Morpeth, which has a population of 20,000; Ashington, which has a population of 30-odd thousand; Blyth, which has a population of 30,000; and Cramlington, which has a population of about 25,000. The Bain report on fire services says that the fire stations should remain at the crux of the townships, but in south-east Northumberland we have a chief fire officer who wants to change that all around. He wants to close these stations. I believe that he wants to demolish two of them, most probably to sell off the sites for housing. That will rake a bit of money in, I suppose.
The chief officer wants to build two new super-fire stations, as they are called, but at what cost? Who knows? It will be a private finance initiative project. The PFI does not affect anyone now, but it will affect a good many people in the future. Obviously someone will build the fire stations—most probably a firm called Jarvis, which I believe is building fire stations elsewhere. We do not know what the costs or the rents will be. The existing four fire stations are perfectly adequate. Even the Fire Brigades Union says that it is quite satisfied with their condition. Indeed, money has just been spent on them: I believe that about £70,000 was spent on new showers and lockers in two of them for the female fire brigade staff who are coming on board.
There is a lot of money at stake. We talk of value for money, but where is the value here? There are four perfectly good fire stations in the townships, with staff doing their job. They can go anywhere. They can deal with road accidents and fires. I shall say more about that later. Yet the council is taking the PFI route. I do not know how much it costs to build a fire station, or a super-fire station, as the new stations are called, but I know one thing: not one of the proposed new stations is to be built in any of the four townships in south-east Northumberland. They will all be on the outskirts. The one in my area will be on an industrial estate in East Hartford.
Why is this happening? I do not know, but I have tried to find out. It seems to be the brainchild of the chief officer, but I have talked to county councillors who will have to pass the proposal, and they seem to think it is a good idea. However, in Blyth, Ashington and other areas a petition has been circulating for several months, signed by some 25,000 people who do not want their local fire station to close. That is a large number of signatures—I may even present the petition here—but as the decision has not been made yet, I hope that the petition is gathering pace. There may eventually be 27,000 or 28,000 signatures.
The county council organised a survey. It sent a questionnaire to every house to ask for people's opinions. When the response arrived, lo and behold, it was against the council. Most people said that they wanted the fire stations to remain in the townships. The council got cracking: it moved one of the PFI fire stations and then launched another consultation. I think that it hoped it would receive the response that it wanted on this occasion. It is the same with referendums: those who keep organising referendums will win eventually. I think that that is what the county council is trying to do.
Members can imagine what my meeting with the county councillors was like. They appeared to favour the proposal, whereas I totally oppose it, as do other people whom I meet and talk to regularly in my town. I had the strong impression that the councillors were telling me, "We are not to blame. The Government are telling us to get rid of the existing fire stations, to go down the PFI road and to build these smart, brand-new stations." I asked "Has the Minister been on the phone to you? Has he talked to you about the plan?" They said "Not really, but we have been told to use resources more lucratively." That means closing the four fire stations and building two new ones through the PFI.
Northumberland county council has had to raise its council tax enormously over the past few years. It has not yet proved that the PFI route will save money, although I have asked the question. I should like to see proof. It has had those fire stations for years. I do not whether any of them are paid off. As I said, the Fire Brigades Union is satisfied with the facilities, so why go down the road of the PFI and cause more disruption in raising council tax in Northumberland? The Chancellor may want to look at that. He has gone mad to save money. He has to save it. He is looking at an empty box at the minute, so it would be interesting to know whether that was costed by the Minister. He may be able to tell me whether it has been costed and whether it is cheaper to demolish some pretty new fire stations and build two new PFI stations.
I come to where the fire stations are situated. A tragedy happened a few weeks ago in Blyth town centre, not far from where I live. We have a lot of terraced houses in Blyth. One caught fire. Three people were in the fire. At the time, the two fire appliances at Blyth were on another call at a fire at a factory, so the fire appliance from Cramlington had to come down and cover for Blyth. That was well planned. The bell went. The message was sent that there was a big fire in a house in the centre of Blyth. The Cramlington appliance, which was situated at Blyth station, was there within three minutes.
Firemen pulled three people from the top part of the smoke-filled house. They brought them out. One was unconscious, another was semi-conscious. Unfortunately, the other, an older man, died on the way to hospital of a heart attack. Under fire brigade and Government statistics, he is not a casualty because you have to be burnt to death, or in hospital more than 24 hours, to be classed as a casualty.
My hon. Friend gave an excellent example of how it is vital to have fire stations close to the centres of population. Does he agree that that was no ordinary house? It was a series of flats that had recently been inspected. It had fire doors and hard-wired smoke alarms. Everything that could have been fitted was fitted. The firemen who attended the fire said that, if they had arrived two minutes later, there would have been three fatalities. Does he agree that it is important to retain fire stations close to the centres of population?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Obviously he, too, has been briefed by firemen in my area, as I was going to come to that point. There was all that fire apparatus in that house. I thank him for making that point for me. There could have been more deaths. That is the sad fact.
We have the figure that 80 per cent. of people who are in fires are dead before the appliance gets there. That magic figures has come from somewhere. Whether it has come from the Minister, I do not know, but 80 per cent. are dead before the appliance gets there. What about the other 20 per cent?
What are people saying? Are they writing 20 per cent. off? That is basically what they are saying. The Minister should take a cool look at the idea that we are getting into our head: people are dead, so why bother? Why bother about house fires? We are more interested in someone stuck on the motorway or jammed in a car following a car accident than we are in fires. I know that fires have decreased and we should do a lot more but, as my hon. Friend said, that house had been inspected and had all the gear: fire alarms, smoke alarms and everything were fitted. It still did not stop that fire or those people being trapped in it.
Another fire occurred a week later, just up the road from the first, on an estate called North Farm. A lady was trapped in her house, but because the fire station is at the bottom of the road, a fire engine was there in less than a minute. She was unconscious and had to be taken to hospital to be revived. Fires remain a danger, yet fire appliances are being taken away from the townships where they are needed—appliances that were put there to deal with such fires. Of course, if the Minister intends to stick to the principle behind the 80 per cent. figure, we will be writing off the other 20 per cent. If the fire engine that dealt with the fires in Bondicar terrace and North Farm had had to come from the posh new PFI fire station, it would have taken eight to nine minutes to get there.
That is the situation in a nutshell: people will die. This is a matter of life and death, yet Northumberland county council is running headlong into this issue. The fire chief says that the engines will get to the fires, but they will have to use rocket fuel. These days, getting through Blyth is very difficult. The roads are clogged—in fact, it is pandemonium. There are only two entrances into Blyth and at certain times of day, it is impossible to get through. That is a big worry. If the rail link that we have been arguing for for many years is established, problems will arise when the train barriers come down on the two roads.
We can do something to deal with these problems—there can be a plan. We can retain the existing four fire stations in the townships, which is what the people want. Of course, we can never be sure whether new Labour will go along with the people. It sometimes ignores them, but it does so at its peril. I am not ignoring my people—I am listening to them very carefully. A lot of council tax payers' money has been spent on modernising the four existing stations, which are in good shape. We could build a new station at the big training facility, and we could get PFI funding. As the fire union said to me, Blyth could transfer one of its appliances to the new fire station. We have two appliances but we only really need one—Cramlington could cover us and we could cover them. So far as I am concerned, the new station can be located anywhere in south-east Northumberland, and it can have the desired modern facilities. But we could also retain our existing township stations, which are important to the people who live in the area.
I realise that the Minister cannot tell the county council what to do—no one can—but I ask him to examine the feasibility of retaining the four existing fire stations alongside the big, PFI-financed station. I should also point out that a local business man is prepared to provide financial backing for the new fire station. That might be worth exploring, because after all, that is all PFI is: someone lending money to help build something. Of course, it is then their project, and they can do what they like with it. This man, whom I know very well—he lives in Blyth, so he must have a lot of money—is prepared to back the scheme. I hope that the Minister will consider that idea, because it is no good talking to the fire chief. His head is buried in the sand: he wants two super-fire stations, by hook or by crook. He is making a bad mistake. This is a matter of life and death for the people of Blyth Valley.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Campbell on securing this debate. When Northumberland's fire chief, Mr. Hesler, first proposed the changes to the fire and rescue cover, his department had spent about two years working up the proposals. All aspects of the current service were examined in great detail to ensure that, as he said,
"the people of Northumberland would have the very best fire and rescue cover coupled with a massive drive on fire prevention."
To that end, the proposals contained details of two new-build fire stations combining an academy and community facilities. The stations would be situated where they would provide the quickest response to the most vulnerable parts of Wansbeck and Blyth Valley. The fire chief said that the locations were crucial to providing good cover for the whole of south-east Northumberland.
I met Mr. Hesler and he took me through the project's details. He assured me that his was the very best possible model for delivering a much improved service. I was disappointed that he and his management team had not worked closely with firefighters in drawing up the new structure. In fact, from discussions that I had with firefighters, it became obvious that I had more information than the Fire Brigades Union. I was surprised that an organisation undergoing such a major restructuring did not feel it worth while to involve in their discussions the very people who are responsible for delivering the service.
During the public consultation process, a problem arose in obtaining planning permission for the new fire station at East Sleekburn, as it was to be located in the centre of the village. The planning authority offered two other sites: the first to the west of the spine road on Brock lane and the second to the east of the spine road by the East Sleekburn bypass—in effect, just across the road from the original site. Both sites would have offered a much larger and more open space for the new community fire station. More importantly, they were in line with the original model.
For reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley alluded to but which have never been clear, the fire authority rejected the offered sites and proposed instead to relocate the new station to West Hartford, five miles away. It had taken two years to complete the model for public consumption. It was the best available, but within 48 hours it had been changed dramatically.
If the latest proposals are accepted, the people that my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley and I represent will be subjected to much greater fire-response times. I understand that the brigade's target is to get two pumps to a domestic house fire within 10 minutes. The available statistics make it easy to work out the highest-risk areas, and to make plans about where to target fire prevention and where fire stations should be sited to ensure the quickest response. I am informed that the new structure will cost more than £10 million. That money would be well spent if it improved fire cover and fire prevention. However, serious questions are being asked about the proposals.
Comparing the blue-light response times in the current and the new proposals shows that, taking geographical information into account, the run times from East Sleekburn would be better than the existing times in three out of four cases. However, the proposed change of location to West Hartford would lead to slower response times. For example, it would take more than six minutes longer to travel from West Hartford to Asda Ashington. Starker differences in response times are evident if we compare the East Sleekburn and West Hartford proposals. For example, the response time for the journey between West Hartford and Cambois is slower by almost five minutes. The average run time from West Hartford to Ashington is more than 10 minutes, so the implications for the journey to Newbiggin cause great concern.
It is acknowledged that the initial response for Wansbeck will come from the nearest fire station, but problems will arise when only one appliance is available, and the second appliance has to be despatched from the alternative station. A much greater proportion of Wansbeck and other areas would be at risk if the new fire station were located at West Hartford. The area north of Stakeford and south of Bedlington would be at increased risk if a second appliance had to be despatched from the other station.
Additionally, there are discrepancies between the table of run times and the geographical information supplied by the fire service. A run time from West Hartford to Woodhorn roundabout is shown as 8.2 minutes. However, the 10-minute run time boundary for West Hartford stops just north of Stakeford, which is some five miles away. Similarly, the average run time from the existing station at Ashington to Woodhorn is 5 minutes and 51 seconds, but the run time from the new station at Pegswood, which is a mile further away, is given as 5 minutes and 44 seconds.
The area to be covered by the new fire stations will be much larger and the fire crews could be anywhere in that area at any given time. It is essential, therefore, to have times from one side of the area to the other, using real addresses. A timed run is exactly that. The chief fire officer has not included the time from when a 999 call is answered to the pumps being deployed and the time it takes the fire crew to arrive at the address of the incident. In a real situation, it would obviously take longer than the quoted response times.
As my hon. Friend said, we currently have four stations covering both constituencies, providing excellent response times. For a fraction of the cost of the new structure, the existing facilities could be improved to provide a training academy and community facilities. The headquarters at Morpeth were recently refurbished at substantial cost to provide modern accommodation. There was extensive rewiring for the provision of IT facilities, and new carpets and redecoration, providing first class office accommodation. The fire station at Morpeth is also in good order and includes facilities for female staff.
The Ashington station has also received substantial investment to provide new female facilities. It has also been rewired. The Blyth station is less than 20 years old and has recently had an £80,000 extension to provide female facilities. The station is in very good order and situated in the heart of Blyth. The Cramlington station is only nine years old and understandably is state of the art. When the land was provided for the station, there was a covenant demanding its restoration to wetland in the event of the building becoming redundant. This station is not part of the new proposals, and it would be a huge waste of public money for the new facility to be demolished. It would be possible to site the academy and the garage at any existing site in south-east Northumberland, enabling the CCBRN—conventional, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear—unit to be situated along with one pump, enabling two crews to be available for community safety.
I am confident that with a small investment we could improve the existing excellent facilities, providing a new academy with first class community facilities, which would give the response times that would protect the public and roll out the fire prevention programme. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to question closely the new proposals from the chief fire officer as they leave important and dangerous gaps in fire cover for south-east Northumberland.
I shall take the chance that I can stay in order in this debate on the perhaps slightly tenuous ground that I represent a constituency in another part of Northumberland. However, fire appliances from Morpeth have been called to the eastern side of my constituency, so I have a peripheral interest that I hope will keep me in order.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Campbell—I call him my hon. Friend because he used to be my pair in the days when we had such things—on introducing a debate on this issue of wide public concern in the county of Northumberland. I also echo the point that Mr. Murphy made about that public concern. If changes are to be made to the fire service, it is essential that the public are carried along with them, but that has clearly not happened. Many people in south-east Northumberland are worried about the proposals, as are my constituents who might be affected.
Interestingly, a few years ago, the fire station in Hexham—it is not in south-east Northumberland, but is part of the Northumberland fire and rescue service—was reorganised. It was changed from a 24-hour manned station to a daytime-only manned station. The point was made that it was important that the fire station should remain in the centre of Hexham, which, despite the changes, was precisely where it went. As there was a problem serving one part of the town, a secondary unmanned fire station was built to allow a pump to be maintained there so that time constraints could be met. That station has closed for various reasons, but a few years ago the fire service was absolutely certain that it needed a fire station in the town centre.
I would like to make only one other point. The hon. Member for Blyth Valley said that he could not understand why the change was needed and the money had to be spent. I do not know whether the Minister can answer that good question, but I will be interested to hear his remarks. I suspect that there is a different agenda. It is in the back of people's minds that the fire service might be regionalised.
I am not sure that I would go quite as far as that, so I will stick to regionalisation at the moment. Every other emergency service has gone that way. Even now it is proposed that Northumbria police will become even bigger through its amalgamation with the police forces of Durham and Cleveland. I cannot believe that the regionalisation agenda will not be extended to include the fire service in time. People have long said that there is no logic in having an independent fire service in Northumberland and that it should certainly amalgamate with Tyne and Wear—who knows what would happen from then on?
A person who was thinking of going for a regional service might find that the proposals and the places in which the new fire stations may be built would make absolute sense, because a much wider area would be covered that than covered by the existing four stations. I suspect that the regionalisation of our Northumberland fire services will occur, which I would oppose because I think that local services are best dealt with locally. If the Northumberland fire and rescue service needs extra equipment or specialist pieces of equipment, it has a long-standing arrangement to use the Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service's equipment. The arrangement works extremely well, and I would hate regionalisation to be extended to our fire services.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Campbell on securing the debate. I also congratulate him and my hon. Friend Mr. Murphy on their excellent speeches. I declare a registrable interest as the secretary of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group, in which capacity I wish to speak.
The decision in Northumberland has national significance. It was based on the new approach introduced by the Government, which moved away from national minimum standards towards a system of integrated risk management planning. That has enabled the fire authority and fire chief to reach a decision that has not been supported by local Members, the local population, or the FBU.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck said, there has been hardly any consultation with the union. I am as sceptical as my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley about the consultation with the general public. I have decided to speak in the debate because this is the test case for the new system to determine whether the Minister has the power to intervene so that he can at least undertake a reconsideration of decisions that have been taken to date, if not override the local decisions, which we believe may be wrong. It is quite clear from the evidence presented by my hon. Friends that serious risks could be caused by the decision to invest significantly in establishing stations that might well be white elephants and certainly will not perform effectively and with public support in the same way as the existing stations.
In the comprehensive assessments on fire authorities, Northumberland has come out not as "good" or "excellent", but simply as "fair". One key element in that document is the importance of communicating with the general public and consulting on such matters. In my view, Northumberland has not been assessed as "excellent" or "good" because it has fallen down badly in terms not only of its relationship with the union and its members, but of its communication with the general public.
The specific case, in a narrowly drawn debate, throws up a national issue. Has the Minister the powers to intervene now that we no longer have minimum standards? What is the role of the Government when a decision is made which we believe is not only inappropriate but possibly dangerous? What powers are still available to him and how will he exercise them? More importantly, will he bring to the House a report on how he will intervene? If he cannot intervene, can we consider the system again, re-examine the integrated risk-management plans and go back to the establishment of minimum standards, which served the country well and ensured the safety of the general public?
I would also welcome the Minister's comments on the fire authority's lack of consultation with the trade union and the general public, and how he will address those matters, if only to issue guidance to the authority to improve its performance.
My hon. Friend Mr. Campbell has raised this subject with me in the Lobby for some weeks, so I am pleased that he has been successful in securing time to raise it on the Floor of the House.
My hon. Friend puts that on the record before I have had a chance to do other than congratulate him on securing the debate.
We heard interesting contributions on the fire and rescue service in south-east Northumberland. Its overriding objective is to save lives. That has not changed since I was a firefighter and a Fire Brigades Union official. The Government have set out ambitious targets to drive down accidental fire deaths.
The hon. Gentleman is correct and my hon. Friend John McDonnell referred to that. As a result of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, we have delegated responsibility for integrated risk-management planning, the determination of the siting of fire stations, the deployment of fire appliances, and the employment of crews and equipment to local chief fire officers and to fire and rescue authorities locally. There are no set national prescribed attendance times in the sense of those outlined in the Fire Services Act 1947. However, we have established public service agreement targets, the first of which is to reduce the number of accidental fire-related deaths in the home by 20 per cent. and to achieve a 10 per cent. reduction in deliberate fires by
My hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley raised the contentious issue of the use of a PFI scheme to develop the new facilities. Has the decision making on the mechanism for use of the PFI or mainstream funding also been delegated to individual fire authorities, or is that determined by the Treasury and Government policy?
The Treasury and Government policy facilitate the use of the PFI as a mechanism for procuring and constructing assets. It is a matter for local authorities how they use the resources that are devolved to them. This is the second time that my hon. Friend and I have debated fire issues. Having started in Committee Room 10 at 9.30 this morning, I am pleased to see him back in his place and continuing to demonstrate his interest as secretary of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group.
We also have a floor target: by 2010, no local fire and rescue authority should have a fatality rate from accidental fires in the home higher than 1.25 times the national average. We have set performance targets for the level of protection that the public should anticipate receiving from their local fire and rescue service, but through the local consultative programme we have greatly devolved and delegated responsibility for how that is accomplished to the authorities and the chief fire officers.
The Government have put in place the framework to achieve those targets, and we believe that it is working. Our latest figures show that there was a 16 per cent. fall in the number of accidental dwelling fires between 2003–04 and 2004–05, a major achievement for the service that we must now make sure is sustained. We have put in place the framework to make the achievement of our PSA targets possible.
The 2004 Act has put prevention at the heart of the Government's agenda for improving the fire and rescue service by creating a new duty to promote fire safety. As we were discussing this morning in Committee Room 10, that is unfinished business going back to the '60s and the '70s. A number of major inquiries, including a royal commission, have said that the fire and rescue service was providing an excellent emergency response but ought to be addressing fire prevention much more in its culture. It was not until the introduction of the 2004 Act that we had the drive to accomplish that, notwithstanding the good fire prevention work that the service has been providing over recent decades. This is taking that work on to a completely different plane. It is a vital part of the work of the fire and rescue service. It is only through fire prevention that we can ensure that the risk to property and to lives is reduced.
Northumberland fire and rescue authority introduced a focus on community safety education and prevention in 2001, and it is now reaping the benefits of that approach. It achieved zero fire deaths in the home in 2004–05 and a 30 per cent. reduction in the number of deliberate fires in 2003–04, a record of which it can be proud and which it attributes to adopting a preventive approach to its work.
I hear what my hon. Friend is saying, but in the case of the Bondicar fire in Blyth, the fire safety gear was all in place, yet a fire still occurred and the house was gutted. It is nice to have these smoke alarms and safety doors, but they are not the end of the matter—fires do happen.
My hon. Friend makes the key point that fires will happen—notwithstanding the best efforts of the fire and rescue service and of householders, accidents will occur. The Government have been trying, supported by Members on both sides of the House, to decide how best to deploy the resources of the fire and rescue service to deal with fires when they occur and now also to determine how best to prevent fires in the first place. Rather than setting prescriptive dictates in Whitehall, we delegated responsibility for that to local fire and rescue authorities because, as they know the area best, they are best placed to be able to determine the needs of local populations and the risks confronting them.
The tragic incident in Blyth last month to which my hon. Friend referred demonstrates the importance of working on fire prevention issues. As he said, despite the first fire crew reaching the scene in three minutes, one life could still not be saved. I argue that only preventive measures might have helped in that situation. He quoted the estimate that 80 per cent. of fire deaths occur before the 999 call is made. I had not heard 80 per cent.; I have heard 50 per cent. It is certainly accepted that a considerable number of people who die in fires do so before the call is made.
I was trying to explain that I had not heard the figure of 80 per cent., but that I had heard the figure of 50 per cent. I cannot definitively say from the Dispatch Box what the figure is, but I can say that it is estimated to be substantial. Even if a fire station is next door, the prospects may be that some people will still die. The questions are how to deploy and balance resources, how to ensure that we have the most effective preventive arm to stop fires happening in the first place and how best to protect the most vulnerable in the community. As all hon. Members know, the majority of people who die in fires are the elderly, the sick, those with substance or alcohol abuse problems, people with disabilities or the poor who live in houses with bad or no insulation, no central heating and no double glazing.
That is one reason why the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has embarked on its ambitious £25 million programme to carry out home fire safety checks in the 1.25 million most vulnerable homes in the country and to install smoke detectors as the best initial way to protect people by alerting them to the fact that there is a fire in their dwelling and enabling them to escape. We have already carried out almost a third of a million visits and more than 300,000 smoke detectors have been installed particularly in the premises of the elderly and the most vulnerable people in our communities. We believe that that is an important way of demonstrating that fire prevention can work and protect the most vulnerable.
We are also introducing suppression systems in homes where a smoke detector would not be of use. There is no point in introducing a smoke detector in the home of someone with disabilities and mobility problems, because it would wake them up just to tell them that there were about to suffer a major fire. Sprinkler and suppression systems provide additional protection in those circumstances. They are also being introduced across the country.
I was referring to the tragic situation in Blyth. As my hon. Friend said, it was a recent event and, at this time, there is still work to be done to ascertain the facts. A formal investigation will find out exactly what happened and the facts will be given to the coroner at the inquest. I am sure that we will all be interested to discover whether there are any lessons to be learned.
The national framework emphasises that, to make a difference, the service needs to move towards a culture of effective prevention and community fire safety work alongside its already excellent 999 response. That is exactly what is happening. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington mentioned the move away from prescriptive national standards to locally determined integrated risk. It is not the role of Ministers to agree the operational proposals in an authority's plan. That is for elected members of the fire authority concerned. They are best placed to act on the professional advice of principal officers and to balance the competing local demands on available resources for the benefit of the whole community that they serve.
I understand, however, that Northumberland has based its proposals on carefully gathered and validated risk assessment data, using the fire safety emergency cover toolkit provided by the ODPM. It has consulted the local community fully on all proposals contained therein and I will come back to the consultative aspects towards the end of my speech.
To be fair, that would be true of the very first set of proposals. Two years were spent working them up, but the point that I and my hon. Friend Mr. Campbell have made is that the proposals were changed within 48 hours. All the data were pushed aside and a site five miles away from the original one was then chosen. The Minister needs to address that point with the chief fire officer to see why that happened.
I made a note of the comments that my hon. Friend made and will come to something of an explanation later. However, I also undertake to seek more information than I have at present to respond to that point. I am confident that the chief fire officer and the elected members of Northumberland county council have at heart the interests of the community, just as have my hon. Friends. I do not in any way, shape or form underestimate the integrity or seriousness of everybody involved in the issue.
The officers and elected members have at the heart of their work the best interests of their community. The chief fire officer and the fire and rescue authority are in the best position to decide where the resources of the fire and rescue authority should be deployed, using the robust data that they have available. I am sure that the fire and rescue authority would be willing to take my hon. Friends through the evidence on which its decisions are based, notwithstanding that, as they described, the position has changed since the original explanation. As I will mention later, there is still time for further discussion.
Fire and rescue services have, in general, responded well to the challenge presented by the introduction of IRMPs. They have achieved much in a short time. The introduction has given senior fire and rescue service managers flexibility to make decisions about fire cover based on existing and potential risks to their communities, within a strategic framework set by locally elected members. They have long sought that freedom and are starting to make the most of it. Fire and rescue authorities are shifting the emphasis from intervention to prevention and progressing objectives to free up resources to direct towards community safety activity. Northumberland fire and rescue service is no exception. It has pursued a number of initiatives, including working with care providers such as Sure Start to promote safer communities. It has also sensibly joined other fire and rescue authorities in the north-east, such as Tyne and Wear and Darlington and Durham, to take forward a private finance initiative project that will help to further their objectives.
On the concerns that this is some covert path towards regionalisation, there is evidence from the Bain inquiry, and from research carried out by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, that collaboration and co-operation within brigades will mean better ways of working. It is not a covert regionalisation plan—nothing could be further from the truth. I have given those assurances to the Local Government Association and a variety of fire service gatherings up and down the country. There is no doubt, however, that closer co-operation and collaboration—I know that brigades in the north-east are engaged in such discussions, as are several other fire authorities across the country—will provide dividends in areas such as combining fire investigation units, human resources facilities and, as my hon. Friends will know, in relation to plans to provide a regional network of control and communications mobilisation centres, which we announced late last year.
The private finance initiative can help to provide fire and rescue authorities with the necessary infrastructure on which to base a truly modern fire and rescue service. It will assist the Northumberland fire and rescue service in achieving its aims by enabling more resources to be put into prevention work, training, community education and equipment across the whole county. The service will therefore be better prepared to deal with all risks to life—one of the fundamental aims of the fire and rescue service as a whole.
The Northumberland plans are to reduce even further deaths and injuries throughout the county, within a range of risks including road traffic accidents and potential major incidents. They will allow the whole service, across the county, to benefit from investment in better training, community safety work and equipment, through the generation of efficiencies allowing reinvestment in prevention.
What will happen if they do not work? The Minister has said that we no longer have minimum standards and that we have risk management plans, but he has neither the political will nor the powers to intervene.
My hon. Friend has articulated that concern a couple of times, but the Secretary of State has reserve powers, and the Department offers professional assistance for brigades introducing new IRMP systems, which are now in their third year, to make sure that they are working effectively. The Audit Commission comprehensive performance assessment inspects fire and rescue authorities in the same way as it inspects other local authorities. At present, we are working up an operational assurance section to assist the Audit Commission in its examination of fire and rescue authorities to make sure that fire and rescue authorities and services are working effectively for their communities.
I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation of the process. Will the reserve powers enable him to call the decision in if it is not operationally effective in the area?
Where there has been concern about the decisions that are being proposed, we shall take a close interest, but we are not in that position. We are confident from the evidence that we have seen, which has been presented to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister by a research unit, that this work has been quality assured. We are confident that it will provide better protection for the people in Northumberland.
I am sorry to persist and to delay the debate. The Minister said in response to a direct question about whether he has reserve powers to call the decision in that a particular interest will be taken. I ask my hon. Friend again: has he the powers to call the decision in?
I have responded to my hon. Friends in indicating that the Secretary of State has the reserve powers to direct. I cannot go further than that now. I have said also that, in this instance and at this time, from the information that has been supplied to us from the determination of the research unit within the ODPM, we are confident that these plans stand up to scrutiny. It is not the role of Ministers principally to agree operational proposals. That is a matter for the fire and rescue service.
As for the consultation exercise, from July to November the public and stakeholders were consulted on these proposals. In December 2005, the county council's executive agreed in principle to the plans and the new preferred site. The council has gone back out to engage with the public on the new preferred proposals. A letter has been sent to households in the county. Information is on the council's website and in the media. Work is planned with the key stakeholders group. It is my information that the county council will make a final decision on the proposals in March. There is an opportunity. I know that the chief fire officer and, I am sure, the fire and rescue authority, will be only too happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk through the proposals in detail. My information is that the final decision will not be made until March.
I have not met the chief fire officer although I tried to arrange a meeting on several occasions. I wanted that meeting to include the trade union representatives. The chief fire officer would not meet me with them. If there was a meeting, he wanted it to be with me on my own. I said that I would not go unless the trade union representatives were present. We are stuck now. He will not meet anybody in the presence of the trade union representatives.
It is most unfortunate that a meeting between my hon. Friend and the chief fire officer cannot be arranged if for no other reason than to allow him to present his petition. As he suggested, it carries the weight of 25,000 signatures. Given this exchange and the concerns that my hon. Friends and Mr. Atkinson have articulated in raising the principal issues, I hope that the fire authority will extend an invitation. Whether that means that he will meet my hon. Friend with the local trade union representatives is something that I cannot dictate to the chief fire officer. However, dialogue is clearly the way forward. I hope that there will be an opportunity for everyone to sit round the table to talk through the issues that are clearly of concern to my hon. Friends. The county council will make its final decisions in March, and that makes it clear to me that there is an opportunity to present the issues in due course.
The hon. Member for Hexham raised public opinion. Local authorities have many difficult decisions to make such as on the closure of a local library or other forms of public property. People are attached to such institutions and clearly have an affinity with fire stations in particular. The fire service is held in great regard and high standing by the community even if people have never used 999. They are reassured by the very presence of a local fire station. If a fire station is likely to be moved, people are naturally alarmed. That is why there has to be even greater effort to reassure them on the nature of the proposals and to try to ensure that public confidence can be maintained.
I do not for a second imagine that people will be happy about fire stations and fire appliances being moved. The important thing is to make sure that there is a major exercise in reassurance for the public. Fire authorities and fire brigades are practical organisations and they support one another across county boundaries, as described by the hon. Member for Hexham and back each other up in various situations as my hon. Friends described.
Initially, I was persuaded that the proposals would improve fire cover for the people whom I represent. My mind was changed dramatically by the fire chief's about-face and the decision to move the station some five miles away. That is what I do not understand and will not accept. It is not acceptable for all that work to be put in and then for the proposals to be changed overnight.
My hon. Friend has effectively expressed his concern and his dissatisfaction with the late change. I hope that a meeting can be arranged to go through, again, the nature of the changes and why they are needed. As he said, he was reassured by the explanation given for the first changes, so it is only appropriate that he be reassured about the final changes.
I may be able to provide some clarification. Under the original programme, the two new PFI fire stations were to be built in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Murphy. There were to be none in mine—all the fire stations would have been closed. There was a reaction to that in Blyth Valley because there was no cover. That was a big problem. There seems to have been a change of mind, and instead of both fire stations being in my hon. Friend's constituency, one is to be on the outskirts of my constituency. That has made the situation worse, but that might be the explanation—the fire chief was trying to balance the two constituencies.
The Government have put in place a comprehensive and robust framework that will ensure that the fire and rescue service will be fit to meet the challenges of the future. There will be locally determined IRMPs that best meet the risks facing our communities and offer safety and value for money to local people, notwithstanding the genuine concerns articulated by my hon. Friends. As I mentioned earlier, a national network of regional fire and rescue control centres will increase resilience, cut response times and provide more effective fall-back. Both will contribute to increasing public safety and firefighter safety and creating fire and rescue services that save more lives, including in south-east Northumberland.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Four o'clock.