Urban residents could be made to pay extra for fire services

Calls for a levy on home and motor insurance premiums to help plug fire service funding cuts have been swiftly slapped down by Ministers.

Government-commissioned reports into the future of fire and rescue services suggested considering the levy on insurance policies to help cover the cost of fire crews attending blazes and road traffic accidents, the Yorkshire Post can reveal.

The reports – produced by experts from the industry and handed to Ministers this week – also suggest fire and ambulance services could be merged, residents in urban areas should be charged a higher precepts than those in rural areas for their fire services and volunteers should be responsibility for translation and community safety rather than paid staff.

And as the region's fire services consider how to cope with funding cuts of as much as 10 per cent next year, Ministers are also warned that the number of fires is likely to go up as a result of the economic crisis as people cut back on "luxuries" such as smoke alarms.

But Government sources branded some ideas in the Fire Futures reports as "loopy" and insisted they would not be pursued. They also rejected the smoke alarms warning and pointed to predictions from the Office of Budget Responsibility of rising earnings and employment over the next four years.

Details of the reports emerged as West Yorkshire's Chief Fire Office Simon Pilling warned frontline services will be hit after he was landed with a 5m cut in next year's budget – with fears of another 20m to come.

He said he was "worried" about the impact on the service, which is already looking to cut 120 jobs, and warned he will have to close fire stations if the further 20m of cuts are imposed by 2015.

As members of the fire authority agreed a blueprint to steer the brigade through the cuts yesterday, Mr Pilling said: "It's hoped that, at least in the first instance, we can avoid compulsory redundancies… but every job in every department and every fire station will be under scrutiny.

"Work has already begun on a fundamental review of fire cover across the county and that should present more options in the New Year."

Mr Pilling is particularly concerned the cutbacks will hit metropolitan fire authorities hardest – services in more deprived areas which tend to have a high number of fires.

The Government has cut its grant to West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Authority by 9.2 per cent next year, costing 5m, as compared to an average of 5.8 per cent across all fire and rescue services. He fears there will be another 20m of cuts by 2015.

The Fire Futures reports were commissioned in July, but Ministers have stressed that the work is led by experts from the industry. They look at how fire services can operate in the future with pressures from changing populations and cuts to spending on public services.

Insurers will be reassured by the Government's immediate slapping down of the levy idea. A similar scheme in Australia can add as much as 25 per cent to bills.

One report says the potential should be "explored more fully" although it admits there would be "significant sensitivities" over the idea.

A spokesman for the Association of British Insurers said its members were already working "tooth and nail" to reduce rising premiums, and said: "Obviously any additional costs on insurers in terms of funding public services end up being paid for by customers and could lead to people not taking out protection."

The idea of allowing fire authorities to charge a higher precept in urban areas than the countryside has also been rejected by Ministers. It was suggested because towns and cities are much more of a drain on resources.

Fire and Rescue Minister Bob Neill said he would "consider options" from the reports but said any changes must be based on principles of localism, decentralisation, transparency and value for taxpayers' money.