Sustainable Communities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:04 pm on 11th March 2010.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Adam Afriyie Adam Afriyie Shadow Minister (Science and Innovation) 4:04 pm, 11th March 2010

I rise to speak about the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 and the impact it might well be having on Windsor fire services and their evolution. The Berkshire fire authority has been using a piece of software to calculate where it ought to have fire stations around Berkshire. This magical piece of software, so much cheaper than the democratic process, has decided that it ought to close Windsor fire service and perhaps locate services to Wokingham, under the model that has been designed. More coverage seems to be needed in suburban developments in Wokingham and elsewhere in the county.

Far be it from us in the House of Commons to challenge the wisdom of magical software-even though I spent 20 years in the industry! Indeed, the day may come-although I hope not-when all of us in the House will be replaced by automated devices. And I am not just referring to the House of Commons-it might even happen in the European Commission.

There are obvious flaws, however, in the software's reckoning. Newly developed areas need more fire cover, that is for sure, but they also contain low-density housing. The main risk is from domestic fires and road incidents, and because such houses will be new, many of the more modern fire and safety regulations will be enforced in those properties, and potential victims will be limited to individual households or vehicles.

Windsor is much more vulnerable, in many ways. It is vulnerable to air traffic incidents. We are under the Heathrow flight path, and with the burgeoning number of flights from that airport-under the Government, it has risen to 480,000 a year-there is a danger of an air incident. The boundaries of my constituency are only yards from Heathrow's northern runway and the flight path crosses directly over the town. It is not the noise disturbance that is relevant but the danger of an incident occurring nearby-there have been many such incidents over the past couple of decades, which may have had an impact.

Windsor is also vulnerable to terrorist attack. The royal family are often resident, there are two army barracks in the town and the units within those barracks regularly rotate to Afghanistan, so there could be some tensions there making our area a particular target. We also have 12,000 domestic properties at risk of flooding from the Thames. The lower Thames works have taken place as far as the constituency, but do not protect areas in the lower part of the constituency and further on down to the Thames itself via Teddington. So there are risks of flooding that have not necessarily been mitigated by the previous works on the river.

Not only is Windsor more vulnerable to such incidents, but single incidents could be far more catastrophic because there are lots of people living close together. Windsor is full of multiple occupancy buildings. We have many hotels, boarding schools, guest houses and dwellings converted to multiple flats. Windsor has 8 million visitors, 750,000 of whom stay overnight in the town. Furthermore, the local economy sustains 7,000 registered businesses-twice as many as Reading, which has a footprint that is five times larger.

There are also irreplaceable elements of our national heritage. Windsor contains nine historic parks and gardens, 17 scheduled ancient monuments and no fewer than 941 listed buildings. One of those buildings is Windsor castle-but no one thought to programme the terrible fire in 1992 into this new piece of software. The Windsor castle fire may as well never have happened for all the impact it is having on the policy in Berkshire.

As I said before, it might be right to increase cover in other parts of the constituency and county, but it is not sensible to reduce Windsor fire cover further. A major incident is more likely there, and is more likely to be highly lethal-to say nothing of the disruption to the national heritage.

The software decided that Windsor could be covered from Slough's fire station, but there are three problems with that. First, Slough fire station is the busiest station in east Berkshire. Indeed, I would argue that Slough was already overburdened with incidents. The second problem is that even if the fire station in Slough is available, its response times will be three to 10 times longer than Windsor fire station's. The difference between three minutes to attend a fire and 10 or 12 minutes can be a matter of life and death. Thirdly, the calculations for attendance times from Slough apply to good conditions on the roads. The route from Slough fire station to Windsor passes through the junction 6 interchange on the M4. In bad traffic the roundabout and the roads on both sides become badly congested, as anyone who uses the M4 will testify. If a major incident occurred in Windsor during peak traffic-for instance, a collision between junctions 6 and 7 on a Friday evening-critical time, and possibly lives, could be lost.

Those are the reasons why my constituency has rallied behind the outstanding campaign run by Michael Rowley of the Windsor branch of the Fire Brigades Union. He has set up a website, windsorfirestation.co.uk, and I am pleased to say that even our party leader came down to visit Windsor fire station to meet red watch and green watch and show his support for keeping the fire station open 24 hours a day. As a result, the fire authority agreed not to shut our fire station completely, but to shut it for only 12 hours a day, which was a great victory for the campaign. However, the closure of the station overnight remains unacceptable to Windsor residents. The royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead is a Conservative council-not that that is particularly relevant: the points I am making apply to all councils-but all parties on the council are united on this matter. We are not talking about a party political issue at all; in fact, there is an active local campaign, involving local activists, local residents, the political parties and councillors, to keep the fire station open 24 hours a day.

Negotiations with the fire authority and a judicial review have so far proved fruitless, so the royal borough's outstanding council leader, David Burbage, turned to the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 to see whether that could do the trick. The original intention of the 2007 Act was to provide a mechanism to shift power between levels of local government in an area, provided that there is firm support from the local community. Under the SCA, the royal borough applied to take over fire responsibility for the borough from the county fire authority, and was even prepared to pay whatever extra it might take to keep the Windsor fire station open. It was therefore not a matter of resources; it was a matter of the will of the people in the area. The royal borough expects that it could run a fire service more cheaply because it is a much bigger authority than the fire service and could easily incorporate the personnel, recruitment, and health and safety systems at a lower cost, potentially, than that which the existing fire authority pays.

However, in practice, if the authority assumed responsibility for the Windsor fire service, it would probably seek tender from neighbouring fire services. That could easily mean Berkshire fire service being contracted back to run fire cover in Windsor and Maidenhead, but on terms that kept Windsor fire station fully operational. Two former chief fire officers helped to draft a proposal, and there was extensive consultation. The results were pretty clear: local people and the various bodies consulted supported the idea. When presented with a range of options, two thirds of respondents preferred the service to be managed by the local authority, while only 12 per cent. chose to keep the service with the Berkshire fire and rescue service. However, the fact that local residents want Windsor to keep its fire station open overnight-local activists, local councillors, local voluntary workers and the local faith community all want it, and I have been campaigning for it for the past four or five years-counted for nothing with the Local Government Association.

As an official selector under the SCA, the Local Government Association turned down the application, saying that it was unviable and unsustainable. I would argue that that decision was highly questionable. We are not convinced that the process was conducted in a thorough fashion. It has been suggested that, as the application by the royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead had already passed, it ought to have been happy with what it had been given.

There are several smaller fire authorities in existence that are perfectly viable, sustainable and highly graded. The LGA's argument-it was not a big argument; it was almost a one-liner-was that the Windsor and Maidenhead fire service was too small to be manageable or viable, but those other small fire authorities have been highly graded. An example is the Isle of Wight. No one would suggest that that fire service is unviable or unsustainable. So the case that ours was too small does not really hold water. Neither does the argument that the rest of Berkshire would be too small without Windsor being part of it.

Section 2 of the SCA specifically enables transfers of responsibilities between public authorities. There is therefore a suspicion that the LGA made a political decision, in order to avoid upsetting vested public sector interests. If that is the case, it is deeply worrying. The use of the SCA is perceived as a threat to those in locally appointed quangos such as combined fire, police and transport authorities, as they could lose their jobs to elected councils. Those bodies are often officer-led, remote and unresponsive to the electorate. The public have negligible influence or scrutiny over them, and they tend to be fairly unpopular. That is why my party is committed to introducing directly elected police chiefs, who would be more responsive to local people. It might be relevant, therefore, that the LGA has no fewer than 31 fire authorities as members, one of which is Berkshire. Fire authorities form a significant block of stakeholders and fee payers in the LGA.

The LGA's decision also seems to depend on a narrow interpretation of the SCA. The intention of the SCA was purely to enable the level of local services to be determined by local people. The transfer of responsibilities between levels is clearly empowered by section 2. The Windsor case becomes even stronger for those who followed the Bill's passage through Parliament. My hon. Friend Mr. Hurd, who introduced the Bill, said that he was planning to use it to enable Northwood police station to stay open longer hours. The Minister who saw the Bill through from the Government Benches, Mr. Woolas, talked about an elected council using the threat of an SCA application to bring police authorities round to its point of view. A clause that would have justified the LGA's interpretation, by denying a council the ability to make applications regarding services of a "wider or national significance", was struck down in Committee and did not appear in the Act.

It would seem that it was not our borough's application that was unsustainable but the fire authority's case against it. It cannot be right that local democracy, empowered under the SCA, should be thwarted by a public sector cartel. The LGA has effectively blocked the will of the people without giving a clear explanation. If the decision is allowed to stand, I fear that the SCA might be a busted flush, at least in regard to major extensions of democratic control.

In addition to local residents, activists, politicians and elected officials, an array of local celebrities has also been campaigning for Windsor fire station. This shows the strength of feeling on the issue. I would like to press the Government to confirm that transfers of responsibility from appointed, single-purpose authorities to democratically elected councils are encompassed by the Act, where appropriate. Was it the intention that the Act would enable such transfers of powers in regard to fire and police services, as well as other, similar public services?

I would like to reopen the question of the Local Government Association remaining as the selector under the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. How can an organisation paid to protect the interests of 31 fire authorities credibly stand in judgment over bids to secede from those same authorities? There is a vested interest at stake there, which I do not think would be allowed in any other area of public life. I respectfully urge the Government to restore faith in the SCA by considering what other bodies could fulfil the selector role more credibly than the LGA, the current occupant. How might this change take place? What powers do the Government have under the SCA to appoint a different selector?

If the selector had clearly laid out the reasons for the rejection of the royal borough's bid to take over the fire services and had provided a reasoned argument to explain why it considered the bid unviable or unsustainable, there would have been more understanding of the position adopted. At the moment, it seems to be a peremptory dismissal, without deep or thorough consideration, which does not bode well, especially if other selectors were to operate in the same way.

Local people were prepared to pay a bit more to keep the fire service open overnight in Windsor, yet bizarrely, even on that basis, the LGA still rejected the bid. It shows that the decision was not to do with money or resources; there is something else going on, which makes me worry that the SCA may not be fulfilling its original objectives.

Perhaps some software could be found to do the job of changing the selector-although I do not hold out great hopes on that. If the Minister cannot satisfy Windsor by asking the selector to give a clear and reasoned answer as to why it rejected the bid, or if she is not prepared to look at changing the selector, this issue is not going to go away. Windsor and its fire service will be the first of many subjects of complaint received in the House that, despite the aim of the SCA-and, I would argue, of the Government-to allow authorities to transfer powers between them, that aim has not been brought about in reality.

Let me summarise the two main points. First, what is the path to follow in order to change the selector? Secondly, will the Minister apply pressure to ensure that we get a reasoned argument in the public domain explaining why the LGA rejected the application? That is the only way to avoid casting aspersions on the LGA's motives, as it seems it is inevitably attracted by decisions that appear both perverse and irrational. I shall conclude my remarks there and I very much look forward to hearing the Minister's response.