Anger over 'ludicrous' funding for firefighters in Tyne and Wear
Fire chiefs have called for assurances over future funding for firefighters in Tyne and Wear after describing the current system as “ludicrous.”
Last December, Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service (TWFRS) received information on its provisional government funding for 2020/21.
Although figures revealed core spending power is expected to increase by 2.8% for TWFRS, it is the lowest rise of all fire authorities in England.
The funding boost also pales in comparison to the national average increase for councils, police and fire services of 6.4%.
With funding remaining uncertain in future years, fire bosses have called for action from government to safeguard services in the region.
“The figures clearly show that we have had the lowest increase this year of any fire and rescue authority, less than half the England average, and that is disproportionate to the risk as an urban and metropolitan area that we continue to face,” said Coun Nick Forbes, vice chair of the Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Authority and leader of Newcastle City Council.
“How on earth the government can justify raising money in county areas but not in metropolitan areas, when we know that it’s deprivation not rurality which is the main driver of costs for the fire and rescue sevice, beggars belief.”
Coun Forbes was speaking at a fire authority meeting where he called for more information over funding in the long-term.
He added: “How on earth for example can we take on more members of staff and recruit more firefighters into positions, with ongoing salary implications for the organisation, without knowing in future years how much income the authority is going to have?
“It’s an absolutely ridiculous and ludicrous way of planning public services.”
Since austerity began a decade ago, TWFRS has seen a 16.3% reduction in core spending power and is the third hardest hit fire authority in England behind West Midlands and Cleveland.
Strategic finance manager for TWFRS, Dennis Napier, said a balanced budget could be delivered next year but stressed government funding beyond that remained uncertain.
At the fire authority meeting, Coun Tom Woodwark said the current funding formula and business rates/council tax systems were “not fit for purpose.”
Coun Michael Butler asked whether TWFRS was being “targeted” for budget cuts due to its good performance.
While Coun Robert Oliver said a key challenge included increasing the council tax base across Tyne and Wear to help bring in more funds.
Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria Police, Kim McGuinness, added it was important to raise awareness of “inequalities” in the funding system.
“Even the government doesn’t recognise the level of inequality here driven by a low council tax base and therefore the inability to drive more from the precept, even though that’s unfair because that’s asking the people to pay more for less,” she told the meeting.
“This continual ask of us to look forward with one-year budgets is just not acceptable any longer.
“I think the government is expecting that they will be there for at least the next five years, so I think the least we can expect is for them to start to look towards longer-term funding settlements.”
Tyne and Wear fire chiefs are due to discuss the service’s 2020/21 budget and council tax precept next month.
Following recommendations from Coun Nick Forbes, the fire authority agreed to lobby government and raise awareness of the fire service’s financial situation.
This includes a request for chief fire officer, Chris Lowther, to raise “structural funding inequalities” with government ministers or senior civil servants ahead of the publication of the final settlement.