Front line services threatened in fire service spending squeeze

Decisions: Fire Authority chairman Coun Chris Lamb
Decisions: Fire Authority chairman Coun Chris Lamb
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A stark warning has been issued that front line fire services may be cut in the years ahead following unexpected developments which have left the service’s budget facing a black hole expected to exceed £4m in the next three years.

That could mean two new fire engines – expected to provide extra cover during daytime hours when demand is highest – being cancelled and other changes which may directly affect the services which exist to keep communities safe.

The situation is so serious that councillors on South Yorkshire Fire Authority – the body which oversees the service – are being told it is “prudent and sensible to consider the best use of any uncommitted reserves”, the cash held as ‘savings’ to cover emergencies.

Central Government austerity cuts have seen the money they 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 – a relatively modest sum for a body of its size.

But this year they have been hit be two unexpected costs – a £1.4m bill needed to reverse new working practices deemed unlawful and additional money to meet new and unexpected pension costs.

On top of that is uncertainty about how much funding the Government will provide in future, it is anticipated that in the 2020/21 financial year, costs and income will be £2.3m adrift, with another shortfall of £2m in the next 12 months.

At this stage, authority members are being told it is too early to predict what might happen and they will be presented with a number of “scenarios and choices” in the year ahead, as the situation develops so they can decide how to bridge the gap.

A report to be presented to the authority states: “After a decade of austerity, where the service has managed Government funding reductions in excess of 30 per cent, management are strongly of the view that to achieve the full extent of the savings now required, will be extremely difficult and there will be some hard choices to make.

“Inevitably, given the size of the challenge and the fact that most of the budget is spent on providing emergency response and prevention and protection services, there is likely to be a reduction in level and quality of those services provided to citizens, residents, businesses and partners across South Yorkshire.”

The service currently has more than £19m of cash in reserve at present but that is expected to dwindle to £2.4m by 2022 “largely as a result of investing in new fire engines, operational equipment and Information Technology (IT) and having fit for purpose fire stations” authority members are being told.

The report adds: “At this stage in the financial planning cycle and given the significant risks and uncertainties that the Service is facing now and in the foreseeable future, it is both prudent and sensible to consider the best use of any uncommitted reserves.”

Some of the service’s spending is raised through Council Tax bills and that money can be increased by three per cent and then two per cent after next year, but those increases will not solve the financial problems.

Authority members will be told: “Beyond 2020, there remains an incredible amount of financial uncertainty facing the sector and service.

“This ‘opaqueness’ is only likely to lift when the Government is able to clearly articulate the state of the nation’s public finances post-Brexit.”