Front-line fire services in both North and South Yorkshire face an uncertain future after chiefs gave stark warnings of multi-million-pound funding shortfalls ahead.
In North Yorkshire, Police and Crime Commissioner Julia Mulligan, who last week took on the oversight of her county’s fire service, warned that “tough decisions” would need to be made.
An independent review into North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, commissioned by Mrs Mulligan and published today, says the service has a hole in its budgets of £2.5m, while Treasury changes to public sector pensions could also leave it £1.5m a year worse off.
The report, by former Chief Officer of Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service Dave Etheridge, says Mrs Mulligan’s predecessors, the North Yorkshire Fire Authority, had been using reserves to plug much of this gap, but said this was unsustainable and “not common in other Fire and Rescue Services”.
While not specifically calling for fire station closures, the report says North Yorkshire has a high number of both stations and fire engines, when compared with similar brigades across the country.
Mrs Mulligan’s takeover of the fire service has proved controversial, particularly in the wake of her apology this month after a panel overseeing her work found she had exhibited “bullying behaviour” towards her staff.
Mrs Mulligan conceded that the change of governance for the fire service had provoked controversy but said the report showed in “stark terms” why the service needed a transparent plan for a sustainable future.
She said: “There have been opportunities to address the double whammy of a reduction in funding and increase in costs, yet the shortfall has been covered by using reserves. As the independent report finds, this was an unusual approach and not sustainable. It can’t go on – every day the amount in those reserves goes down, every day they get closer to running out.
“As a result of the financial pressures, and decisions previously being put off, I need to be upfront in saying that tough decisions will have to be made.”
Meanwhile, another stark warning has been issued that front-line fire services may also be cut in South Yorkshire in the years ahead.
The brigade’s budget faces a financial black hole due to exceed £4m in the next three years.
The funding shortfall could mean two new fire appliances – expected to provide extra cover during daytime hours when demand is highest – being cancelled and other changes which may directly affect services.
Councillors on the South Yorkshire Fire Authority – the body which oversees the service – are being told it is “prudent and sensible” to consider the use of “any uncommitted reserves”, the cash held as “savings” to cover emergencies.
Cuts from central government have seen the money put into South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service cut by 30 per cent in recent years, but despite that the books have been made to balance with a predicted shortfall of £300,000 next year.
But this year the brigade has been hit be two unexpected costs – a £1.4m bill needed to reverse new working practices deemed unlawful as well as additional money to meet the unexpected pension costs.
A report to be presented to members states that “to achieve the full extent of the savings required will be extremely difficult and there will be some hard choices to make”.