FIRE chiefs have paved the way for the downgrading of Huntingdon fire station and the removal of its rescue vehicle.
Proposals put before the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Fire Authority on Thursday last week were voted through, despite claims that they would have a serious impact on the provision of frontline services.
The decision means that if Government cuts exceed the anticipated £4.2million and bosses instead have to lose £6million, Huntingdon will lose its wholetime status and only be manned by firefighters during the day. Night-time cover would be provided by retained firefighters, directly impacting response times.
In addition, Huntingdon rescue vehicle, which is used in water rescues or to free people trapped after road collisions, could also go.
Bosses at Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service said that the decisions will allow them to act quickly and described the measures as the “worst case scenario”.
A further meeting will be held in May this year, in which further key decisions will be proposed to the Fire Authority, including the removal of the second fire engines at St Ives and Ramsey.
Chris Strickland, Deputy Chief Fire Officer said: “It is important that members of the public realise that the recommendations which were approved form part of our ‘worst case scenario’ plan of action and will only be implemented if the overall budget cuts exceed the £4.2million we have already planned for.”
Additionally, Fire Authority members agreed that if the cuts exceeded £5.5million, then the service would need to look at making further cuts to its support services and officer provision, which would take the savings over the £6million mark. This would prevent the need for deeper cuts to frontline services. They also agreed not to identify any further savings until the final amount of cuts had been identified.
The Government’s spending settlement is due to be published in December and means that all fire and rescue services in England and Wales are unclear about exactly how much budget cuts they will have to make and are being forced to make predictions instead
Mr Strickland said: “We anticipate that we will have to make £4.2 million worth of budget cuts between April 2011 and April 2015.
“We have planned for these and are confident that we will be able to deliver them without impacting on the delivery of our frontline service to the public.
“However, like other fire and rescue services, this sum is a prediction, as we will not know until December what the Government spending settlement will be.
“While we are confident that the savings will be around the £4.2 million mark, it could be between £4.2m and £6m, and there is nothing to stop the cuts going above this figure. We have a duty to plan for this and to keep the residents of Cambridgeshire informed of what is happening. We can’t bury our heads in the sand, cuts this severe would have to result in fewer fire engines and a reduction in service to the public. This isn’t something we want to do, but we do have a duty to plan for this, so we can take action if we need to.
“It’s also important to stress that even if the figure is £4.2 million, making these cuts will not be easy and will severely impact on how well we are able to support our frontline service. With reduced numbers of support staff we will only be able to maintain the bare minimum in terms of support for the frontline and won’t be able to continue delivering groundbreaking and innovative work as we have in the past.”
Local Liberal Democrat councillors condemned the “sweeping” cuts and said they feared lives could be put at risk.
Nigel Bell, Lib Dem leader on the Fire Authority, said: “We condemn these cuts completely as they would lead to the downgrading or closure of fire stations, a reduction in fire fighters and fire appliances and an increase in emergency response times.
“We have a moral duty to protect the public and these cuts are unacceptable and could cost lives.”
He added: “People’s lives will be put at risk by these cuts and the blame must largely fall on Tory Fire Authority Members for keeping council tax rises well below inflation.
“We can only hope that the Government’s grant to Cambridgeshire’s Fire Service is fairer for the next two years and that the very worst of these cuts can then be avoided.”
Sir Peter Brown, one of Huntingdon‘s county councillors, spoke out strongly and voted against any reductions that might be made in Huntingdon’s fire and rescue service. Speaking at a meeting of the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Fire Authority, Sir Peter said, “For more than 30 years, successive governments have expressed little understanding of Cambridgeshire’s needs. They have accepted that we are a growing county but, in many cases, have not accepted the responsibilities that go with it.
They have been ready to foist on us proposals for hundreds and thousands of more houses but have not accepted the funding to nurture that growth. As a result our infrastructure is under huge pressure.
“In Huntingdonshire, the Alconbury development, which I warmly welcome, will provide up to 8,000 new homes. There will be 1,200 new homes on the edge of Great Stukeley and 800 new homes in Godmanchester. Now we are expected to cut our local fire service. How can this be right at a time when we are also about to launch a major revitalisation of our town centre?
“I cannot vote for proposals to cut £850k from the fire service budget in Huntingdon at a time when such huge growth is predicted. I call upon all local authorities in Cambridgeshire to plan a consistent campaign to make Government aware of our predicament.”