Last week the Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland Combined Fire Authority met to discuss their plans to carry through ongoing cuts (they use the word savings) to our local fire services. The principal leadership of this Authority happens to be provided by Nick Rushton (from the county) and Leicester’s very own Sir Peter Soulsby.
Here we should recall that it was this same dubious duo who fronted last year’s atrocious attacks on the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) — an attack they were eventually forced to backtrack from due to massive opposition. We should also remember that in the wake of the U-turn on the ludicrous and dangerous cost-cutting review brought in by Rushton and Soulsby, local FBU spokesperson Graham Vaux made clear:
“I just want to say that [the latest] review has come about because of what the FBU, firefighters and the public did when we opposed the original cost-cutting proposals. This is what we have been crying out for. If the fire service or the authority want to make out it’s their idea, I don’t care.” (June 22, 2016, Leicester Mercury)
But when the Combined Fire Authority subsequently met in December, a report in the Leicester Mercury pointed out that potentially dangerous cuts were still going ahead:
“Councillors on Leicestershire’s fire authority have backed a plan by brigade managers to remove 17 of 176 fire engines and cars in a move intended to save £202,000-a-year. Under the plans five of the existing 36 fire engines would be taken out of service but they would be replaced with smaller, cheaper-to-run tactical response vehicles (TVRs).” (December 18, 2016, Mercury)
Moreover, during the Combined Fire Authority’s most recent meeting, it appears they are considering plans to save money — cut our services — by redeveloping Loughborough’s fire station as a supermarket! Of the course the Fire Authority like to pretend this action wouldn’t represent a real closure, as they will be relocating the existing fire station to other property owned by the Fire Authority.
But these questionable actions seem very similar to those being forced on the Rushey Mead community in Leicester, who are being told that the relocation of their library into an already small and heavily used recreation centre, does not amount to a massive cut to the service!? (A public meeting is taking place on Monday night to discuss ongoing resistance to Leicester City Council’s decision, 6.30pm at Royal Leicesters.)
However leaving aside the ongoing efforts to save money by selling buildings, firefighters are still very concerned about attempts to replace fire engines with tactical response vehicles, or souped-up cars with “a hose that amounts to just a jet wash.” Speaking to the Loughborough Echo (February 8), the FBU’s Graham Vaux said of the proposed changes:
“We just want to make sure it’s done safely and not done to save money and cut corners. The ideal standard would be two engines and at least four firefighters each but the TRVs may only respond with two people. Fundamentally we are against these cuts; we are going from what was once three engines to currently two and now one.”
What is clear is that such public service cut-backs are endangering the lives of both the public and firefighters. The same is true for the police, and as the Leicester Mercury (February 6) reported last week:
“Police officers in Leicestershire are ‘exhausted and on their knees’ as the number of colleagues around them falls, according to their representatives. Leicestershire Police Federation said the force had seen the second biggest percentage decline in officer numbers in England and Wales in the past year. It said statistics published by the Home Office showed that only the neighbouring Nottinghamshire force had lost a greater proportion of its officers, while a small number of forces, chiefly in the south east of England [including Surrey], had increased in size. The Home Office figures show that at the end of September last year, Leicestershire Police had 1,794 officers – a decrease of 5.8 per cent, or 104 officers, than 12 months previously.”
Tiff Lynch, chairman of Leicestershire Police Federation added:
“If the reduction in officer numbers had brought a reduced workload with it, things may be different. But it hasn’t. We are the service that people rely on, that people turn to when they need help. We are dealing with more patients with mental health issues than ever before, and we are picking up the slack where other organisations are struggling to deliver their services. It really is quite simple – for us to be able to deliver the service that the people of Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland expect and deserve from us, we need more people.”
Public services across the board are presently in crisis, whether they be fire services, the police, schools, or the NHS, and there can be no doubt about the primary reason is massive funding cuts. Tory-run Councils like Surrey appear to have been offered “sweetheart deals” from the government (see “Jeremy Corbyn accuses May of sweetheart deal with Surrey council,” The Guardian, February 8), but funding deals like these will never be extended to Labour-run Council’s like our own in Leicester.
What Labour-run Councils therefore need to do with some urgency is offer an alternative political vision to the cuts and austerity being rammed down our throats by the Tories. In a timely fashion, a rare and critical article in The Independent (February 9) points the way forward “Forget ‘sweetheart deals’ – this is how Labour councils can beat the Tories at their own game”:
“This Home Counties love-in demonstrates why it is imperative for Labour-controlled councils to be determined in fighting back against damaging austerity imposed on local governments. After all, if the Tories aren’t playing by the rules, why should Labour accept the cuts devolved to their local authorities? Especially when it has been proven that cuts to Labour councils are up to five times higher than to councils controlled by the Conservatives.
“Not only do these revelations prove that the austerity game is rigged against working class communities and Labour controlled areas – it also shows that it’s time that Labour councils resisted a reckless and failing economic policy by refusing to implement cuts devolved to them from central government.
“A line often parroted is that any attempt to resist Tory austerity and put forward a no-cuts budget would be illegal. This would be true if a deficit budget was set – but by using councils’ extensive borrowing powers and huge reserves of funding Labour councils would be able to set legally compliant anti-austerity budgets that save public services and jobs.
“Every time a budget of this kind has been put forward it has been rejected, but it has also been upheld as legal.”
The article concludes:
“By supporting legal no-cuts budgets, it proves that Labour are a serious opposition that will fight tooth and nail for the communities they represent. Jeremy Corbyn often says that ‘austerity is a political choice’ and it’s about time Labour councils stood up to the Government and opposed their methods of selective austerity.”
So the question that remains is: will Leicester’s Labour Council fight for the future of public services by doing everything in their power to set a legal “no cuts” budget right now?
The Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service has employed chartered surveyor Jonathan Bishop to review all the property owned by the Rescue Service, and he set out his findings at a Combined Fire Authority meeting on February 8. As the Mercury (February 9) reported: “Mr Bishop, who has been working with other fire services and ambulance trusts around the country, urged the fire service try to share more buildings with the police and paramedics – along the lines of the so-called blue-light hub in Coalville’s Broad Street, where police, fire and ambulance personnel are under one roof.”
As the Combined Fire Authority note in their latest “Budget Strategy 2017/18 to 2019/20”: “The Revenue Support Grant payable to LFRS is projected to fall from £11.8m in 2013/14 to £4.2m in 2019/20.” Currently the Combined Fire Authority is made up of 17 elected members, five of whom are Labour Party councillors from Leicester, these being:
- City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby – who is the Vice Chair of the Combined Fire Authority
- Councillor Mansukhlal Chohan (Belgrave ward)
- Councillor Kirk Master (Stoneygate ward)
- Councillor Aminur Thalukdar (Stoneygate ward)
- Councillor Kulwinder Singh Johal (Braunstone Park & Rowley Fields ward)