Regional fire service within three years

EXCLUSIVEBy Graham DinesPolitical EditorONE fire control room to cover five million residents across the six counties of the East of England will be operational within the next three years on the orders of the Government.


By Graham Dines

Political Editor

ONE fire control room to cover five million residents across the six counties of the East of England will be operational within the next three years on the orders of the Government.

The chief fire officers of the Suffolk, Norfolk and Hertfordshire fire brigades are in talks with their counterparts on the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Essex, Southend and Thurrock, and Bedfordshire and Luton fire authorities to set up a joint regional management board.

But so great is the rush towards regionalism that the county councils and fire authorities have just three months to tell Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott that they are preparing to implement his plans.

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If he is not satisfied, Mr Prescott will use powers to combine the six fire and rescue authorities and impose a structure himself.

MPs, councillors and the Fire Brigades Union have all pledged to fight what they believe is the first step towards the abolition of county brigades, to be replaced by a regional fire and rescue authority as part of the introduction of European-style mini-parliaments throughout the country.

The East Anglian Daily Times has also launched a No To Regional Fire Service campaign, which has seen hundreds of readers sign coupons opposing the creation of a single fire brigade for the region.

The proposed joint regional management board will comprise councillors from each major authority in the region.

It will oversee the establishment of a purpose-built regional control centre, responsible for dealing with residential and industrial fires, as well as emergencies and rescues on:

n large sections of four of Britain's busiest motorways - M1, A1 (M), M11 and M25 and the Dartford crossings

n Stansted, Luton, Southend, Norwich and Cambridge Airports

n port complexes at Harwich, Felixstowe and Tilbury

n railway lines into Fenchurch Street, Liverpool Street, Euston, St Pancras and King's Cross stations, as well sections of London Underground's Central and Metropolitan lines

n nuclear power plants at Sizewell and Bradwell, the gas terminal at Bacton and oil refineries on the River Thames

n army headquarters in Colchester and military bases and airfields in Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire.

In addition to the headquarters project, the management board will oversee the regional purchase of equipment and clothing for individual brigades, integrate specialist services such as fire investigation and take responsibility for training, personnel and human resources functions.

It will also “ensure resilience to emergencies, especially potential biological, radiological or nuclear attack”.

However, the Government - which will fund the new headquarters and the associated Firelink radio control - has abandoned the controversial proposal to integrate fire, police and ambulance control rooms.

Suffolk Chief Fire Officer Malcolm Alcock said: “At the moment, the fire service's priorities are determined locally, delivered locally and managed locally. We have to co-operate to get the best possible outcome for the county and its Council Tax payers.”

Peter Monk, fire service portfolio holder on Suffolk County Council, hoped to stave off threats to the independence of the brigade.

“Co-operation does of course exist between us at the moment - brigades from all over the region dealt with the biggest incidents of recent years at Norwich Library and Center Parcs at Elveden,” he said.

Lionel Lee, chairman of Essex Fire Authority, said councillors were elected locally to make local decisions and he did not want Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire telling Essex what to do.

“This is typical Government bullying - 'Do as we say or we will impose our will'. I will fight this as far as I am able - Essex will co-operate, but we do not want regional control imposed upon us,” he added.

David Ruffley, the Conservative MP for Bury St Edmunds, said he was appalled at the plans.

“They are the slippery slope leading to the abolition of our county fire service and its merger into a regional monster,” he added.

“It is obvious that if the counties do not do this willingly, it will be imposed on them.

“Regional fire control is part of the Government's secret agenda to impose regional government on Suffolk by stealth. It is a disgrace and I shall be writing to the Deputy Prime Minister to protest.”

Simon Burns, the Conservative MP for Chelmsford West, called the move “deeply worrying”.

He added: “We have an excellent service here in Essex. The people working in the fire service are familiar with the county and this knowledge will be diluted if we have a regional control and eventually a regional service.”

Former Suffolk County Council leader Chris Mole, the Labour MP for Ipswich and a member of the all-party Select Committee monitoring the work of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, said: “I would prefer to see the fire brigade retained in the structure of the county council until the economic case has been made for integration.

“There is no strong evidence for the case for regionalism on this issue and I am not persuaded by the fascination of the civil service for the introduction of regional fire brigades.”

Jeremy Pembroke, the Conservative opposition leader on the council, said he was “horrified” at the plans.

“My fear is that property and lives could be put at risk because response times will be slower from a regional centre - we need to retain a control room in the county,” he added.

“The people of Suffolk are proud of their independent fire bridge, which is far more efficient that most others in the country. This is the Government's regional agenda being pushed through by the back door.”

But a spokesman for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister defended the proposals.

“Because of the scale of new challenges being faced by fire and rescue services, in particular new demands from international terrorism, we are calling on firefighters and fire authorities to work together closely and effectively at a regional level,” he added.

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