North East fire brigade cuts ‘will put firefighters and the public at risk’

The region's fire service budget could be cut by a third.
The region's fire service budget could be cut by a third.
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SPENDING cuts will mean fewer fire engines to protect the region, Tyne and Wear’s Chief Fire Officer said today.

Iain Bathgate, who leads Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service, has voiced fears about front-line cutbacks to the regionwide service as the brigade braces itself for far bigger reductions in grants than previously expected.

He said the service – one of the busiest in the country – was already struggling to cope with an estimated £8million funding cut over four years.

Mr Bathgate told the Echo the service had previously calculated it would get a 25 per cent cut in funding. But he fears that figure will rise.

He said: “Now we anticipate we will see a greater reduction, of well over the 30 per cent mark.

“For the original plan, over four years, we anticipated that with a fair wind we might get through without having to get rid of any front line fire engines.

“But now that’s not going to happen. We will lose fire engines from the front line.

“If all of this comes to fruition, by the end of year four the service will not be as good as it was.

“There will be a deterioration of what we give to the public.”

He added: “We need clarity to plan for this level of reduction. It’s not a good situation to be in.”

Union reps said up to four engines and 100 firefighters jobs could be lost and Wearside MPs said it could threaten public safety.

Dave Turner, secretary for Tyne & Wear branch of the Fire Brigades Union, said the effect of the cuts would be “catastrophic” in the third year, potentially costing four engines – out of a fleet of 31 – and 100 firefighters jobs.

“Cuts cost lives,” he added. “Any reduction in fire cover will put firefighters and the public at risk.”

Bridget Phillipson, MP for Houghton and Sunderland South, said she recently visited North Moor station and shared firefighters’ worries.

She said: “Clearly they will always strive to do their best, but my concern is that public safety will be put at risk, and the excellent response times we have in Tyne and Wear will be severely tested.

“In any fire or major incident, people understandably want a response as quickly as possible, but we are being penalised for our effective and efficient service in Tyne and Wear.”

Mr Bathgate also criticised the imbalance between grant cuts for fire services in different parts of the country.

“Metropolitan areas in the north have been significantly affected, as opposed to those in the south – who in some cases have actually seen real term growth.

“This idea that we are all in it together, and fairness, is not what we are reading into the situation.”

The grant is dealt with by the Department for Communities and Local Government.

A spokesman said: “Driving down the nation’s deficit is the Government’s biggest priority, but we have made sure that extra money, powers and funding freedoms are available to protect frontline services and the public from council tax rises offering real help to hard working families and pensioners.

“Overall, single purpose fire and rescue authorities will see a reduction in their revenue spending power, taking into account grants from central government and council tax of 2.2 per cent in 2011/12, and 0.5 per cent in 2012/13.

“To achieve this level of savings, the Fire and Rescue Service will need to increase efficiency and deliver reform. It will be for individual fire and rescue authorities to decide how to make these savings locally.

“But if they share back office services, join forces to procure, cut out non jobs and root out the over spends significant savings can be found.”