Liberal Democrat

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.

Election talk: fluff

Talk of a General Election in March is just fluff, unless we as a nation can decide what MPs are really for. But neither Brown nor Cameron, nor yet the Daily Telegraph, seem ready to face the real crisis: politics in Britain is broken, and it needs fixing fast. But what, and how?

What kinds of Prime Minister are there? I made a little list: Leaders, Managers, Administrators, and Caretakers.

Gordon Brown is a caretaker. He came in at the dog-end of the Blair years, and was instantly faced with crisis after crisis. The poor man has never got his head above water. The things he did well (the Millennium debt campaign, for example) are all forgotten about. Nobody can really point to anything he has done especially badly. It’s just that crises gather round him and he doesn’t seem to have the power to sort them out and get on with his real agenda. In fact, more than anything else, the public’s un-love affair with Gordon is based on him not having an agenda at all.

John Major was an administrator. Aside from the personal things (you can imagine him carefully filling in all the forms, and frowning when anyone had written in the space marked ‘do not write in this space’), his approach to Britain was to carefully make sure that we were fulfilling expectations, doing our duty, moving the agenda long in safe increments. But it wasn’t his agenda, and, since he’d been voted in because he wasn’t Thatcher, it wasn’t her agenda either. Really, it was the ‘Victorian values’ agenda — harking back to a time when politicians were good, and the people were good, and Britain could be proud of its place in the world, because it was good. John Major never went to university (he did a correspondence course in banking instead). If he had done, he would probably have discovered that history is not quite as simple as he thought it was, and that nostalgia is not all it used to be.

Cameron wants to be a manager. ‘Let us look after the economy, and we’ll do it somewhat better’, is his appeal to the electorate. I’m reminded of a story I read about a new manager who arrived at a company and found three envelopes on his desk, with a note: “If things are not going well after three months, open envelope 1. If things are not going well after six months, open envelope 2. If things are not going well after nine months, open envelope 3.” After three months, things were not going well, so he opened envelope 1. Inside was a note, which said “Blame your predecessor.” After six months, he felt obliged to open envelope 2. Inside, the note said: “Predict that things will shortly get better.” He duly did so. However, as things still did not improve, he found himself opening envelope 3 after nine months. The note inside was terse: “Prepare three envelopes”.

The ever fickle public may well believe that Cameron could not possibly do it worse than Brown, and may want to give him a chance. I have to say, I think that that confidence is misguided. But Cameron has no compelling vision of the future of Britain, and absolutely no vision at all of the future of politics in Britain. He wants to keep as much of the system intact as he can in the face of the overwhelming public hatred for the political class and their expenses. He will duck and dive and say all the right things. But Cameron will not be any kind of a reforming leader, and, to give him his due, he has never promised to be. If elected (and contacts in Mori are now saying it is unlikely he will obtain a sufficient majority), he will be blaming Brown after three months and after six predicting recovery.

Tony Blair, of course, saw himself as a great leader. As did Margaret Thatcher. But, of course, both of them led us into trouble. Thatcher established greed as the one great spiritual value of the nation and tried to turn it into policy with the poll tax, charging people based not on their ability to pay, but on the simple fact of their existence. Blair led us straight into the arms of George W Bush, and thence into the Iraqi desert. Leaders will be judged by history more strictly than managers, administrators and caretakers. It’s probably fair to say of John Major that he did no real harm, and of Brown that he did no real anything.

However, this is not the time for a caretaker, or an administrator, or even a manager. The expenses scandal is not the cause of what is wrong with politics, it is merely a symptom of it. For years the role of the MP has become steadily less clear and less valuable. Prime ministers have become more presidential, cabinet has become steadily less answerable to parliament. When I was small, ministers resigned when their departments blundered. These days, they simply blame officials and sack them.

In the mean time, parliament has increasingly realised that all it actually does is make or block legislation, and play a supporting role to the government-opposition media prize fight. Unsurprisingly, we have ever more laws, and yet no greater justice. MPs talk constantly about efficiency savings that could be made, but every bill they pass makes life more complicated and requires the creation of more jobs to administer and supervise it. And, before we see that as some kind of useful job-creation, the people who really have the ability to manage such new laws would be better employed applying their talents to the great problems of state.

I do not remotely condone the misuse of tax-payers’ money (and, more importantly, the misuse of power and privilege which we the citizen voted them in for). But I understand why some MPs, arriving perhaps full of ideals only to discover that their significance in a stitched-up secret society is essentially zero, would then look around for something else to do. The devil has indeed made work for idle hands. Or, if not the devil, Mrs Thatcher, who, to support her articulation of greed as the basic principle of the economy, created a system which rewarded inventiveness and brazenness at the expense of public duty and honesty.

People are talking about a March election suddenly. Of course, Cameron is talking it up, because he knows that the sooner the election, the less chance that he or his party will have been caught saying or doing something really stupid. But the larger question goes unanswered: just what exactly are we electing? What is an MP’s job description? What are the hours? What are the duties? What constitutes a legitimate expense and what is simply misconduct. More importantly, what is the role of the House of Commons? Clearly not to scrutinise — the House of Lords does that, and, despite the archaic system, is more effective in doing it, because it has a robust group of cross-benchers and independently-minded lords political who ensure that it is not simply the whipping dog of the party in power. Hopefully not to generate yet more regulation and legislation. We have — in many parts of our life together — moved to the point where we are no longer protecting people, but actively curtailing their legitimate life aspirations.

Liberal Democrats may have been a voice crying in the wilderness for a long time, arguing that politics should be changed, that the safe-seat system (which is at the heart of the vast majority of the really serious expenses breaches) needs to be abolished and every vote should be counted, not just the few that are cast by floating voters in a vanishingly small number of swing seats, arguing that MP expenses should be made public, and for an end to Punch-and-Judy two-party politics. A voice crying in the wilderness, but the wilderness is now at our doorstep.

When leadership is needed, we would do best to those who have been pointing the way consistently throughout their careers, not those who jumped when the bandwagon suddenly became popular.

Victory in Alveston

Massive congratulations to new Lib Dem councillors Tony Cronin (Stratford on Avon District Council) and Ian Fradgley (Stratford upon Avon Town Council), who took the Alveston seats from the Tories in tonight’s by-election. This puts steadily more pressure on the demoralised Stratford Tories, who suffered the biggest swing against them anywhere in England in the 2008 elections, and saw the second biggest swing on their turf in the County Council elections, when the Liberal Democrats picked up a net of two seats in the district, for a total of five.

Utterly unproven

Utterly unproven

"No fire cuts" protest in Bidford on Avon, 7 November 09 The consultation document is farcical, the case for change is not made, the future costs have not been calculated — so why are Warwickshire Fire Services pushing ahead with a plan to cut the fire service by more than fifty firefighters, close firestations and and abandon fire-engines on which they still have to pay fees whether they use them or not?

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.

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