The story so far: before the June County Council elections, the portfolio holder promised voters that there were no plans to cut the Warwickshire fire services. Almost immediately after the elections, a consultation was announced on ‘improvements’ to the services. People who read the document were bemused, because it was evidently paving the way for cuts, but it only talked explicitly about increasing numbers. Shortly afterwards, it became clear that the plan was essentially to dispense with retained fire-fighters and a number of fire stations, and to attempt to fill the gap created by taking on a much smaller number of full-time firefighters. Under questioning, through Freedom of Information requests by the Liberal Democrats, and in public meetings by residents from, among others, Bidford on Avon and Studley, it became clear that there would be a net reduction of more than fifty firefighters.
I reviewed the consultation document on behalf of local residents — you can read my original report Analysis of the Warwickshire Fire Consultation Documents — and discovered that it completely failed to reach the bare minimum standard for a public consultation.
Shortly afterwards, an FOI ((Freedom of Information requests must be answered within 21 days and give the public the power to demand documents produced by publicly funded bodies)) request from Councillors Peter Moorse and Hazel Wright, forced the release of the hitherto secret management review by Det Norske Veritas. You can read that here: Det Norske Veritas Risk Review. The questioning, balanced view of the Norwegian company which provided the work contrasted very, very sharply with the confident, essentially patronising language of the consultation document. I wrote a second report on this, which you can read here: Comparison between Consultation documents and Det Norske Veritas risk report.
Since then, in a series of public meetings and protests, it has become clear that nobody except the Conservative cabinet of Warwickshire County Council, and those who report to them, is in favour of the plans put forward. Even Conservative district councillors (mindful no doubt that they are up for election next year) and Conservative MPs (mindful almost certainly of the same unpleasant truth) and prospective parliamentary candidates are distancing themselves — at least in public. We should remember that, no matter how much county councillors, district councillors and MPs like to present themselves as different from each other, a political party must stand or fall together. If they really cannot agree, they should leave the party. That is how politics works.
There are three fundamental reasons why this consultation process and the plans behind it cannot stand. Any one of them should be enough to persuade the Warwickshire cabinet that it is time to call time on these plans.
First, the consultation document is in a very real sense a false prospectus. We are told that if we don’t agree with it, we can put our own views forward. That is how consultation is supposed to work. But this relies on an accurate, complete and comprehensible presentation of the plans. The consultation documents put forward are none of these. A number of people, including a number of lawyers, have suggested that the process will fail at Judicial Review. But this is simply madness. Are we really going to drag each other through the courts? Is that worth wasting the tax-payer’s money on? If the issue were some complex and contentious point of law, then that perhaps would be the right solution. But there is no need to test these documents in the courts. There is a national standard (and a county standard), and the proposal document completely fails to satisfy it. It should therefore be withdrawn, without any recourse to the courts.
It is not enough (as the Cabinet portfolio holder has suggested) to accept that the documents are poor but to count on the public meetings to provide legitimate consultation. Where the written documents are inadequate, there can be no confidence that the two sides in a public meeting are even talking about the same thing. How can Cabinet determine the difference between responses based on a sound understanding of the real proposals and their consequences from those based on the original consultation document? Again, they have suggested that, since they have published additional documents, the public can reasonably be expected to have read the subsequent documents. Once more, not so! This would effectively invalidate early responses. Furthermore, it would require the collators of the responses to be able to track which version of the information the public was responding to.
Secondly, and more importantly, even if we take the original consultation document at face value, no compelling case has been made for why change should take place. The documents do not identify any particular inadequacies of the existing service. To be sure, they offer some suggestions of things which it would be nice to have — a boat, more money for smoke alarms, specialist units for road accidents, more training — but they do not make any case whatsoever for what is wrong with our current arrangements. If there is nothing wrong with them, why should we even entertain (let alone accept) a set of changes which will have dire consequences for at least fifty fire-fighters, will damage the lives of the communities from which the stations are taken and, potentially (since we never really know the consequences of our decisions until it is too late) will result in the loss of life and property across the county.
Of course, it could be the case that a prospective Conservative government is about to substantially reduce the budget available for fire-fighting. Perhaps the County Council cabinet knows this, and perhaps so do the MPs and district councillors. But, if that is the case, they owe it to us to tell us. It is not enough to say “we’re doing this for your own good — we just can’t tell you why”. If change is in the wind, then we need to know this.
We imagined that all would be clear when we got the (then) secret management report. But this is not the case. The management report comments on the haste with which they were asked to analyse the risks. In their conclusions, they state explicitly that a full risk analysis should be undertaken. I put this to one of the leaders of the consultation process, after the Bidford public meeting. He told me that ‘consultants always try to get more work for themselves’, and explained that it was always certain that the consultants would recommend a further report. Ok. Fair enough. But, if you didn’t want the answer, why did you ask the question? If consultants were certain to say that the timescales were too tight, and more work was needed, what was the point of asking them at all? But, having asked them, the Warwickshire Cabinet is honour-bound (and, by the standards of the National Audit Office, duty bound) to take their report seriously.
Thirdly, and most importantly, we know that the police, and also the Health and Safety Executive, are still investigating the tragic Atherstone on Stour fire of two years ago. The Det Norske Veritas references this fire more than once. Well sourced, but strictly anonymous, insiders tell us that one of the main drivers of the proposed changes to the fire service are a way of dodging criticism which the county council is expecting when the results of those investigations are published. They will be able to argue (we are informed) that the service has changed radically, and therefore the criticisms will relate to the past, not to the present.
All of Warwickshire mourned the deaths of the firefighters on that day. All of us, of course, want changes to the way things are done to minimise the risks that people who risk their lives for us should run. But. Absolutely crucially, until the results of those investigations are published, we will not know in what ways things should change. How does county council cabinet know that it won’t be making things worse with its changes? Certainly not based on the results of the risk report, which suggests that reducing the total number of firefighters will increase the risks. Certainly not based on the work of other fire-services. The Atherstone investigation has already cost £4million. If the police could simply have looked up best practice and compared it with what actually happened, the investigation could have been finished within weeks of the fire. It is absolutely right that the police and the Health and Safety Executive take their job seriously. We owe that to those who gave their lives, and to their families and friends. It is also right that they work exhaustively if that is what is needed to discover the truth. But the greater their investment of time and money, the more foolish it is to second-guess it.
The public has already put £4 million on the table to find out how things should change. Warwickshire’s fire service proposals are a cheap attempt to second guess that investigation. There is no worthwhile evidence that the current proposals will make things better. Many frontline firefighters believe passionately that they will make things dramatically worse.
But the madness is that we do not need to sit around arguing about it. We only need to wait until the investigation is done.
Which is why this consultation, and the proposals behind it, are utterly, utterly wrong.
They are the wrong proposals, at the wrong time, put forward in a way which is so poor that no real information can be gathered from consulting the public at all.
Farce. Fiasco. All the usual words are simply inadequate.
County Councillors, if you are reading this, pull the plug on the Warwickshire fire services consultation. You owe it to yourselves. More importantly, you owe it to us.