Bidford on Avon

Fire: Bidford saved, Studley lost

Fire: Bidford saved, Studley lost

Bidford Young Firefighters, Martin Turner, Cllrs Peter Barnes and Daren Pemberton during the campaign.

Bidford Young Firefighters, Martin Turner, Cllrs Peter Barnes and Daren Pemberton during the campaign.

After months of delay — with no explanation — the county council finally voted on the future of the fire service across Warwickshire. An independent report commissioned by the council on their consultation highlighted many of the concerns I’ve previously expressed on this site: much of the consultation document was incomprehensible, the choice of a tabulated questionnaire prevented people from expressing their views, and the way the consultation was handled did more to promote opposition than to create consensus. The report also pointed out that, whatever mitigating factors might be asserted, the vast majority of people opposed the cuts.

In the event, Conservative portfolio holder Richard Hobbs recommended what he termed ‘Option B’ – closure of Studley but a reprieve for Bidford. We had suspected all along that the original proposal was put forward in order to make the real proposal seem more palatable.

Although everyone in the Bidford campaign must be pleased with the assurance of a future for our fire station, Studley residents will be bitterly disappointed. Questions raised in the consultation were never answered, and it is hard to see to what extent the Conservative cabinet changed its view in response to constructive proposals by the campaigners.

Snow has fallen here…

Snow has fallen here…

Tree on the River Avon at Marlcliff

Snow fell on Marlcliff today

To all those caught in the snow, I send my warmest wishes.

Driving from Warwick to Marlcliff, I was pleased to see that the main roads were snow-free and the traffic was moving. Three cheers for all those who have worked hard to keep them gritted. Off the main roads, the snow was already covering the way. Since then, night has fallen, and even the main road outside our house is now covered in snow.

It is at such times that we must recognise that we are residents on this Earth, not masters of it.

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.

Fire delay: cynical political move

We learn today that Warwickshire County Council’s Tories have put off any decision on their proposed reduction of the Fire Service indefinitely, by which we understand “until after the General Election.”

For those who have fought these changes tooth and nail, this is a minor victory, but also a major threat: we have demonstrated to councillors that the public will not tolerate the closure of fire stations and sacking of retained fire fighters on such a flimsy, misleading prospectus. The consultation document is thoroughly discredited, and the process with it.

So much for the minor victory. But the threat is that, as soon as the General Election is passed, the proposals will be back, and with vengeance. Bidford, Studley, Fenny Compton and all the others are just as much under threat, and fire fighters face a future which is just as uncertain, but with the prospect of less time between a decision and the fall of the axe.

If anyone believes that this is unlikely, and that we have really won, then they should look at the lesson of this summer. Right up to the County Council elections, councillors including the portfolio holder assured us that there were no plans to cut the services. Immediately after the election, the plans were rolled out. Coincidence? You can believe that if you really want to. Most of us will regret that we feel obliged to doubt.

In the mean time, what should be done?

Everyone who has been involved in the fight needs to keep up the pressure on the local authority. Councillors should continue to receive letters, marches and public meetings should continue to happen. For as long as they believe that public opposition is strong, Tory councillors will be loathe to bring up the issue. The moment that they believe the opposition has subsided, they will push forward with their plans.

We cannot allow that.

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