Fire chiefs fear pay rises could force them into 'difficult' cuts as cost of living crisis bites

Tyne and Wear’s fire service has warned it could be forced to make “difficult” cuts next year unless the government covers the cost of pay rises.

By Daniel Holland
Friday, 5th August 2022, 6:10 pm

Finance bosses have issued a gloomy prediction that the organisation could soon be facing a shortfall of more than £1 million, forcing it to slash frontline services.

While backing calls for a substantial pay rise for firefighters, brigade chiefs have urged the government to protect fire and rescue services amid warnings of a “tsunami” of money struggles as the cost of living crisis bites.

Members of the Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Authority were told last month the service could be left with a £1.3 million burden if national pay agreements result in higher than expected rises for staff.

Chris Lowther, Chief Fire Officer of Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service.

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Finance director Dennis Napier said officials had “underestimated” the scale of the cost of living crisis and, with inflation rocketing, and now faced “quite a significant shock” to the balance sheet.

Fire service support staff are being offered a £1,925 pay rise, averaging out to a 7.32% increase in the Tyne and Wear service (TWFRS) and putting a £341,000 unfunded cost on the organisation’s books for this year.

Mr Napier suggested a similar agreement for firefighters could increase that to £1.3 million.

The Fire Brigades Union has already rejected a proposed 2% pay rise and warned its members “have never taken industrial action lightly but nor can we allow this pay insult to pass without challenge”.

Tyne and Wear’s chief fire officer, Chris Lowther, told the authority on July 27 all fire service staff should get a real terms pay rise this year – but that the money must come from central government, not local budgets.

He added TWFRS had become an “an extremely lean organisation” and while pay rises above 3% could be covered by savings, bosses would face “difficult decisions” about future cuts.

Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Kim McGuinnes added she was “deeply frustrated” by the government’s refusal to help, saying: “They give with one hand to our hard-working staff, but will take with the other – that is not a choice we should have to make locally.”

On top of escalating fuel and energy bills, there are also concerns that the rising price of steel could push up the cost of a new £8 million ‘tri station’ due to be built in Hebburn.

Newcastle Lib Dem councillor Tom Woodwark accused the government of enforcing a “new austerity”, adding: “This is a new tsunami coming towards every authority in the country and to this one in particular.

“Fuel prices are going up, energy prices continue to go up. We have a government which clearly wants to have industrial action for its own political ends, it is absolutely clear that is what’s happening. The outcomes are pretty stark for this authority and pretty worrying.”

Sunderland councillor Phil Tye, chair of the fire authority, also backed a significant pay rise for firefighters and vowed to lobby the government alongside MPs to secure the funding needed.

He said: “Why should the residents of Tyne and Wear suffer more [due to budget cuts] when they are already in a difficult position?

“It will be very difficult but we are not going to rest on our laurels, we are not going to just accept it.”