After the fire…

Warwickshire County Council did not know what had hit it when thousands of people took to the streets up and down the county to protest proposed cuts to the fire service. The level of public anger was vastly greater than expected. Bosses understood that closing down fire stations would not be popular. But what inflamed residents most was the apparent dishonesty of the consultation document, which worked so hard to talk up the benefits that it neglected to mention the proposals would reduce the number of fire-fighters and close fire-stations.

Within four months of the consultation document being released, county councillors in the ruling Conservative party had done an about face and put the proposals on indefinite hold. Three days later, Conservative party leader David Cameron was despatched to Leamington Spa to suggest that the proposals should wait until after the public enquiry into the deaths of firefighters at the Atherstone-on-Stour tragedy. Whatever his intention, this fuelled speculation, in the Stratford Herald as well as in other places, that the decision to suspend (not scrap) the fire cuts was made in order to defend an increasingly shaky electoral position in Warwickshire, and that councillors were responding not to the will of the people, but to the dictat from Conservative Central Office.

One of the officers involved with putting the proposals forward told me that consultation documents were supposed to put one side of the story, and that this was standard practice up and down the country. When I suggested that this was not, or should not be, the case, he asked me how else the changes could be pushed through. It had clearly not occurred to him that, if it was impossible to persuade an informed public who had been given all the facts, perhaps they should not be pushed through at all.

I don’t think there was ever a time when anyone in Warwickshire would have been taken in by the consultation document which was put before us. But I do believe the extreme spin which was put on it reflected the fear of the people putting it forward, and that fear was fuelled by three things.

First, it was fuelled by the knowledge that, just a few months before, the man who was to front it had been promising that there would be no fire cuts. Whether this made a difference to his electoral prospects or not it’s hard to say, but, clearly, Warwickshire Conservatives believed that no word of fire cuts could or should be breathed before the County elections, which saw them take Warwickshire from no overall control into Conservative administration. Councillors were clearly afraid that they would be accused (which they in the event were) of concealing swingeing cuts, and they tried to hide this by presenting the cuts not as cuts at all, but as an increase.

Second, it was fuelled by the knowledge that Warwickshire would shortly be sharply criticised in a national review.
This information was not made available to the public until the day after the consultation finished, but the Comprehensive Area Assessment known as OnePlace reported: “The Fire and Rescue Authority know they have to improve their fire prevention service. They also know that they have to change the way they work to improve the service as a whole. This is a difficult task and part of the challenge will be to explain the plans to residents so they understand the reasons for the need to modernise the way the service is provided.” In the fuller text, the assessment added: “They have been slow to make the changes needed to provide a more efficient, modern fire service that balances emergency response with good prevention and protection work and gives taxpayers good value for money. The pace of change is picking up.”

The extreme haste with which the proposals were developed and put to public consultation between the end of the council elections and the announcement of this assessment reflects the real fear that people would be even less open to change if they knew what was driving it. In fact, almost certainly the opposite would have been true — if the authorities had admitted early on that they were in serious trouble and needed help, they would have gained a more sympathetic hearing. I doubt it would have changed the outcome, but it would definitely have changed the tone.

Third, it was fuelled by the fear that, after all, the proposals did not stack up. Councillors and officers initially refused to release the full document setting out the risk assessment for the changes, and only did so when Liberal Democrats Hazel Wright and Peter Moorse on Stratford District Council put in a Freedom of Information request. This was the first official, public document that admitted that fire stations would close and that the total number of fire-fighters would be reduced by 51 (the consultation document gave the impression that they would be increased by 25). When a subsequent Freedom of Information request asked for the costings, the answer was that costings had not been calculated.

All these fears that the public would mistrust the reasons behind the proposals — in the bizarre world of half-baked decisions and incomplete logic — led those putting the document forward to produce not something which was so transparently transparent that people would be forced to say “we disagree with your proposals, but we admire the honesty and clarity with which you put them”, but which in every sense failed to fulfil its obligations to the public trust.

After all the revelations of MP expenses during the summer, for people to be given something in the guise of a consultation which was little more than a trick, was more than anyone was willing to stand.

I have yet to meet one person from the Warwickshire public who supported or trusted the proposals. I doubt that I ever will. In a year when public trust in politicians has fallen to its lowest in recorded history, the Warwickshire Fire Consultation did us the gravest disservice.

It is customary, when a major public consultation, on which an organisation is betting its future, fails, for someone to offer their resignation. As yet, no-one has. I think it is probably too much to hope that, in the next few months, in order to restore damaged public trust, someone will.

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