Fire service merger is shelved

Suffolk and Cambridgeshire’s Fire and Rescue Services have agreed that the merger between the two services will not go ahead.

However, the word from both camps is that they remain committed to exploring other opportunities for closer working in order to save money, while helping to protect frontline services.

Following a progress report being presented to Suffolk County Council’s cabinet and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough’s Fire Authority in autumn 2012, both services have been carrying out the detailed work necessary to complete a full business case.

As a result, a number of issues have been identified that collectively render a full merger unviable at this time.

These include:

- A Government announcement that makes changes to the criteria for triggering a referendum on proposed council tax increases would be relaxed in 2013/14 for eight fire authorities – including Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Fire Authority.

The relaxation has enabled them to increase their Band D equivalent council tax for 2013/14 by £5, to offset some of the decrease in Government grant funding.

This increase was agreed at their Fire Authority meeting on the 11 February.

The increase has significantly widened the gap between the council tax precepts for the fire services in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire - with Cambridgeshire now having a council tax precept approximately £11 higher than Suffolk for a Band D property.

This scenario makes the necessary process of equalising council tax, were a merger to take place, problematic.

- Achieving a merger by April 2015 would require significant support from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) - both in terms of providing necessary financial information, and in facilitating the parliamentary process to achieve such a merger. A Suffolk Fire spokesman said there had been a great deal of engagement with DCLG, but absolute assurance had not been realised in the course of the discussions.

- The 12-week public consultation that was carried out across both Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, which finished on January 14, was inconclusive in terms of the appetite for a full merger – with 49 per cent of respondents being in favour, and 41 per cent not being in favour.

- Further work has now been carried out on the potential efficiency savings that a merger might realise. These savings are measured against a backdrop of both services having already secured a combined £800,000 per annum efficiency-saving by combining 999 fire controls in the two services, plus each service having already made many other significant efficiency savings over the last two years.

The assessment is that a merger would realise further savings, but these would not be as significant as first thought.

The extent of these savings also needs to be considered against transitional costs that would need to be met, were a merger to take place.

- There is a considerable difference between the level of reserves held by both services.

Andy Fry, Suffolk’s chief fire officer, said: “We have made significant savings through merging our control rooms, and we will continue to try and identify further options to work to together and share resources.”