The Fire Brigades Union’s newspaper advertisement is dramatic. Above a picture of Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne are two words in bold black print and two in red: THEY SLASH, YOU BURN.
Today, just two days after Bonfire Night, MPs will be lobbied by firefighters from around the country about the effect of proposed spending cuts on the fire service.
Locally, West Yorkshire Fire Authority has announced proposals to save £8m as part of the Coalition Government’s drive to reduce public spending.
Fire Service officer Simon Pilling outlined the cuts in September, declaring: “Accidental fire deaths and injuries are at an all-time low and some stations are now half as busy as they were a few years ago, so we can rationalise and modernise while still providing effective fire cover.”
The proposals, now in the middle of a three-month period of public consultation, include reducing the number of pumps at Fairweather Green. That station is in the Bradford West constituency represented by Respect Party MP George Galloway. He was not impressed by Mr Pilling’s explanation.
He said: “This complacent platitude, which is rolled out every time there is a cut, just doesn’t wash. By definition, a deadly fire can happen any time, anywhere – a rationalised service is no comfort to anyone caught up in it.
“The idea of firemen and women being put out of work and fire stations being closed would be regarded with horror by the people of Bradford.”
West Yorkshire Fire Authority chairman David Ridgway has said that while West Yorkshire was taking a 10.5 per cent cut in funding, some Conservative-controlled shire counties were getting more.
In Bradford especially, with its deeply-embedded memories of the 1985 Bradford City Fire Disaster, which killed 56 people and injured hundreds more, firefighters represent all that is not self-serving, short-term and politically expedient – accusations usually aimed at Government ministers who decide which budget gets more and which gets less.
Bradford East Liberal Democrat MP David Ward has a particular interest in this issue, of course, because the fire station at Idle, one of the 11 up for closure, is part of his constituency.
He has had a meeting with West Yorkshire fire officers and representatives from the Fire Brigades Union. He said the fire officers seemed to argue the case for closures and staff cuts with a lack of enthusiasm.
He said: “It’s being driven very clearly by the reductions. But we need to make sure these are not knee-jerk reactions. We need to be thinking long-term. The recession will not last forever. I don’t think these cuts are in the interests of the fire service.”
If the Idle station closes then so will the station at Shipley. West Yorkshire Fire Service say they could be combined into a single station, perhaps located on Canal Road.
Last week, George Galloway was the primary sponsor of an Early Day Motion to Parliament condemning the proposed cuts, noting that the West Yorkshire Fire Service had the lowest grant of all metropolitan brigades and the lowest expenditure per head of population. The Government was urged to think again.
He said: “The final cut has not been made and until it is we are going to fight it all. I never regard anything in politics as a foregone conclusion.”
But last year, in spite of nearly 3,000 letters of objection, the West Yorkshire Fire Service Authority approved cuts of ten fire stations, replacing them with five new ones, the withdrawal of seven appliances and the reduction of the number of operational firefighters by 135, including 20 compulsory redundancies.
If the current round of proposals are accepted this December, West Yorkshire will be served in future by 47 fire stations instead of 48 (including ten new ‘super’ stations), but with 375 fewer firefighters and 19 fewer appliances.
Shipley Conservative MP Philip Davies said: “If the number of fire stations isn’t going to change, then why not leave them where they are?
“The key thing with fires and road traffic accidents is getting firefighters there as quickly as possible. I have quite a lot of sympathy with the FBU on this.”
Over four years until 2015 at least, the fire service has to save a total of £18m.