Fire Stations (Warwickshire)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:13 pm on 30th June 2010.

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Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 4:13 pm, 30th June 2010

I congratulate my hon. Friend Chris White on securing the debate and raising what I know is an important issue for him and the other hon. Members who have spoken, as well as their constituents. The fire service is important, as it deals with people's lives, and it is therefore particularly appropriate that this debate has been so well attended by hon. Members from the county of Warwickshire. I take on board the points made by my hon. Friend, whom I listened to with care. I also take on board the points made by hon. Members in interventions, as well as those that have been made to me by the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury, my hon. Friend Jeremy Wright, who, as another member of the Government, is not in a position to speak in this debate, but has taken the trouble to contact me on behalf of his constituents.

Against that background, I understand my hon. Friend's pride in Warwickshire's fire stations and the services that they provide. Local pride in services is one reason why we as a Government are committed to localism for the fire service as well as the rest of local government. Local providers are best placed to know how to serve their local communities and, importantly, to know what level of service that might entail and the best means of delivering that service.

I associate myself with the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington for the work of firefighters in Warwickshire, particularly the retained firefighters to whom he referred, who work hard to keep the people of their communities safe. We should be immensely proud of them. I had the pleasure to meet officials of the Retained Firefighters Union earlier today. The retained service has the full support and confidence of the Government.

The background to the proposals is based in the governance and statutory arrangements controlling the fire services in England. Fire and rescue authorities are required to produce and regularly update an integrated risk management plan, sometimes called an IRMP, which identifies and assesses a local need and sets out plans effectively to mitigate existing and potential risks to communities. The Warwickshire fire and rescue authority's plan was produced by that process.

The process epitomises localism by enabling each fire and rescue authority to decide how best to provide fire and rescue-related services. That, of course, includes prevention and protection as well as response. Resources are allocated on the basis of an evaluation of risk and where risks are greatest. The evaluation includes such strategic and operational issues as the siting, manning and equipping of fire stations and their hours of operation, and should also take into account cross-border arrangements with neighbouring authorities. Local requirements are thus determined by local people according to local circumstances.

An evaluation under that process has led to specific considerations by the Warwickshire fire and rescue authority to change the fire cover arrangements in its area in light of both the assessed risk and the availability of resources. It is fair to say, of course, that fire and rescue authorities, like all other public services, must be cognisant of constraints on budgets in the circumstances of the economic crisis inherited by this Government. Equally, of course, it is the Government's determination that priority should be given to services at the front line. It is therefore right that many of the proposals in IRMPs-this applies across the country, not just in Warwickshire-aim to increase efficiency. By so doing, fire and rescue authorities can maximise the amount of risk-reducing activity they can deliver from the resources available. That is clearly the right approach, and the aim must always be to ensure excellent service delivery.

I know that that sometimes involves difficult decisions. Having served as a member and leader of a fire authority myself, I am conscious that, in such circumstances, there are often contrary arguments that are advanced in good faith that must be weighed up. I have read Warwickshire fire and rescue authority's improvement plan proposals, which cover many areas besides fire station changes, such as the promotion of public fire safety, increased firefighter training, enhanced flood response, the introduction of a specialist road traffic collision unit, and the deployment of small fires units and target response vehicles. I note that Warwickshire contends that, overall, the plan will ensure that current fire cover is maintained across all areas and that, in some areas, it will be improved. It also contends that there will not be an adverse effect on response times.

Of course, I have heard a number of counter-arguments in today's debate that have echoed the concerns expressed locally in the past six months or so. I am also aware that the inquiry into the tragic deaths of firefighters at Atherstone on Stour remains outstanding. An argument can be advanced for bearing in mind the outcome of that inquiry before coming to any final conclusions on the shape of the service although, as I will make apparent, that decision is not for me to make as Minister; it is for the fire and rescue authority to make.

It is a requirement that the IRMP and any significant changes to it are subject to full consultation with the local community prior to agreement and implementation, and I am aware of the amount of debate that has already been generated about these proposals. At one level, that degree of interest is a good thing. One never likes to see controversy, but the process has generated a real sense of engagement in the communities concerned about the importance of the fire service in their area. As someone who believes passionately in the fire service-as I did before I became Minister-that is something I welcome. Although such a process is healthy, it is right that both sides of the debate are heard, and therefore I recognise and commend the role of my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington in ensuring that counter-arguments are appropriately focused and conducted, and presented to the fire and rescue authority before it takes its decision.

Against that background, I come back to the crucial point that it is not the place of central Government and Ministers to intervene in the operational proposals of a local authority's IRMP or the associated balancing of competing local demands on available resources. The consideration of such proposals and the assessment of the benefits to the communities that are served are rightly the role of elected members of the authority concerned. They should make the appropriate decisions on the basis of the professional advice of the principal officers of the fire and rescue service and, as we have seen, following due consultation with the local community.

It might well be that members wish to come to a view on the material that they already have, that they will wish to consider options that are being put forward by various interested parties, or that they wish to consult across the areas of advice available to them about the options that are appropriate. I am sure that they will bear in mind the broader background to these proposals. That said, because of the statutory position and the correct political process of localism that applies here, I am sure that you, Mr Benton, and my hon. Friend will understand that I am unable to comment directly on the specific proposals that are being put forward and consulted upon by Warwickshire fire and rescue authority. The very principle of local determination and local solutions for local circumstances means that it would not be appropriate for me to attempt to influence the decisions with which the fire and rescue authority will be faced on 20 July in the light of representations made to it.

There is still a period of time between this debate and the decision on 20 July during which representations can be made. I am sure that all hon. Members who have spoken and others who are interested will continue to take the opportunity make such representations. My hon. Friend's case was made powerfully and with admirable succinctness-such admirable succinctness that I am in the dilemma in which Ministers sometimes find themselves by wondering whether I should repeat my remarks until 4.30 pm.