Somerset fire service cuts confirmed as stations could be sold in debt crisis
Cuts to frontline fire fighting in Somerset were confirmed yesterday as councillors agreed a modest council tax rise to help fund services.
Fire bosses admitted some of Devon and Somerset’s 85 – mostly rural – fire stations could also be sold under plans to tackle a financial black hole.
Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service will see its debt spiralling to £36 million in the next five years. It said it would seek to increase the revenue it raises from commercial activities, such as selling assets.
Councillors at Devon and Somerset Fire Authority yesterday approved a 1.99 per cent council tax rise to partially plug the funding gap left by the third worst grant cut in the country by the Government.
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Its share of bills in the two counties will rise by £1.47 a year. By keeping the increase below 2 per cent members avoided triggering an automatic referendum, demanded by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, which would have cost around £2.3million.
But its plan, which centre around scaling back the largest fleet of fire engines outside London by ushering in the so-called “light response pump”, will see the authority shatter its debt ceiling of 5 per cent by 2019. Treasurer Kevin Woodward said the projected debt would need to be paid off by an increase in revenue from commercial activities.
However, he described the predicted overspend – debt currently stands at £4.6million – as equivalent to a 36 per cent mortgage on the service’s £100million property estate.
“It is sizeable amount of money which will need to be mitigated as much as possible by any surpluses in the commercial area,” he told a meeting of the authority.
Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service announced plans last month to shed 150 jobs voluntarily in response to a grant cut by £5.5 million or 17 per cent over two years. It also seeks to scale down three of Plymouth’s seven crews to “on-call”, doing the same with one crew in Taunton, one in Torquay and another in Ilfracombe.
Chief Fire Officer Lee Howell said rural operations found it harder to make savings than their urban counterparts, who have more whole-time staff and scope for cuts or changes.
He told the authority meeting, at fire service headquarters in Clyst St George, outside Exeter, that a disposal list of estate property, which includes 85 mostly rural fire stations, would be drawn up.
But he warned that he was “limited” as to how much he could do without “compromising operational performance”.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) backed the rise in bills but said the corporate plan under consultation would leave the public waiting longer for a fire engine.
Speaking after the meeting, FBU chairman in the two counties Bob Walker said he “dreaded to think” what would have to be cut without the 2 per cent rise.
“But taking away fire engines from the front line is not the way forward for the general public,” he added.