Fire merger plans scrapped

PROPOSALS to merge Northumberland’s fire and rescue service with its Cumbrian counterpart have been dropped because of a wrangle over council tax.

Discussions began in January about the possibility of combining both operations to create a ‘super-service’ which would have stretched from the Solway to the North Sea.

But the potential link-up generated considerable hostility, not least from the Fire Brigades Union which said it lacked detail of benefits, risks and costs.

Only this week, Conservative members of Northumberland County Council branded the idea a ‘charade’, after waiting months for a crucial report containing details to be published.

They earlier warned that any merger would likely lead to the loss of rural fire stations, as part of cost-cutting measures across both counties.

But a statement by Coun Jeff Reid, leader of the council’s Liberal Democrat administration, has now revealed that discussions have ended, after Cumbria pulled the plug.

“We have been awaiting advice from the Department for Communities and Local Government,” he said. “The Government supports mergers such as this, so it is difficult to understand the position taken by Northumberland Conservatives on this matter. The scaremongering about fire station closures is complete rubbish; this was never the intention of the review. This review was about how we could improve services at less cost.

“The problem centres on council tax equalisation; Cumbria would pay more and Northumberland would pay less and there is no way around this. For this reason, we understand that Cumbria does not wish to proceed any further.”

Coun Glen Sanderson, who is deputy leader of Northumberland Conservatives and member for Chevington with Longhorsley, said: “It was vital to get this out into the open after months of delay, which was only adding to the uncertainty surrounding the future of our own fire and rescue service.

“It was increasingly clear that the Lib Dem scheme to merge our fire service with Cumbria’s was unworkable. A merger would have resulted in the closure of some of our fire stations, which would have been entirely unnecessary, given the high quality and value-for-money provided by our dedicated service. This service is crucially important for all local residents.

“The staff do a wonderful job protecting us all and helping those who most need it, so we should be steadfastly supporting this successful and vital service, instead of creating insecurity.”

Alnwick’s Coun Gordon Castle said: “There is always a naive assumption that joint working will be cheaper for all concerned and that is not necessarily the case, as we have seen here. The Cumbrian council tax base is higher than in Northumberland, which would have meant they were subsidising fire and rescue operations here.

“If the leader of the council says the idea is dead, then I’m relieved.

“We’ve spent far too much time and resources on discussing what was a flawed idea.”

Andy Noble, FBU executive council member for the North East region, said: “I think there will be some relief that the people of Northumberland will retain control of their own fire service and that it won’t be subjected to the whims of Cumbrian politicians – and vice versa. I don’t think someone in Shap would want their own service being controlled from Morpeth.

“In our experience, one of the partners in a merger ends up financing the other, while the service level settles at the lowest common denominator. If people had listened to the professionals, we said from the outset that this was a complete non-starter.

“With plans now going ahead to merge the control rooms of the five fire services in the North West, from Cumbria to Cheshire, we could have ended up with an appliance in Berwick being deployed by a controller in Warrington. That is ludicrous.”

But Coun Reid said the exercise had not been a waste of time.

“We have learned a lot working with Cumbria on this project,” he said. “The experience has helped us to see that there are different ways of delivering the fire and rescue service and achieving the Government savings target that will not compromise the future of the service.”