Fire chiefs and unions have united to oppose what they say are savage government cuts which have left Devon and Somerset with the third worst funding deal in the country.
The service has announced it needs to shed 150 jobs after its grant was cut by £5.5 million, or 17 per cent, over two years – the equivalent of a 24 per cent council tax rise.
The chairman of Devon and Somerset Fire Authority is calling on Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to rebalance the unfair grant system amid fears that an even deeper cut of up to 30 per cent is in the pipeline for 2016.
The Fire Brigades Union says the reduction is unacceptable, risks destroying the fabric of the service, and puts “lives at risk”. Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service has pledged not to sack staff, close stations or remove a single pump as it scales back spending over the next two years. But proposed changes include moving six “whole-time” crews to on-call working, culling senior managers and introducing a new fleet of smaller fire engines.
Fire authority chairman Mark Healey said he was “hell-bent” to find out why the service had dropped from third from top to third from bottom of the UK funding table of 58 fire services.
Nine of the region’s MPs are said to have backed a protest and a bid to secure more cash, though realistically an improved settlement is not expected in time for this year.
“I am disappointed as we have done a lot of lobbying to deal with this issue,” Mr Healey said. “In Bristol or London you have massive amounts of cash to play with while we are always worse off in larger geographical areas – it is unbalanced. Every time we turn out it costs more but we are expected to continue to go out and rescue people now with £110,000 per week less.”
The grant has been reduced by 10.3 per cent for the year 2013/14 and by 7.3 per cent for the following year.
Chief Fire Officer Lee Howell outlined plans 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, North Devon. Mr Howell said an analysis of areas where calls were dwindling allowed crews to be scaled back safely.
“Rather than cut services and blame the Government we have tried to think our way out of this difficult set of circumstances,” he added.
FBU spokesman Bob Walker said: “After the recent floods and fires that firefighters have dealt with so professionally, the cuts would be a real kick in the teeth for both the public and the service.”
The fire authority will discuss the proposals next Friday and, if agreed, there will be a 12-week public consultation.