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Chief warns of reductions to county’s fire service if funding is not addressed

The chief fire officer for Cambridgeshire is warning there will have to be reductions to the county’s fire and rescue service unless the way in which it is funded changes.  

Recently, as part of national negotiations with the Fire Brigades Union, a revised cost of living pay award of five per cent was offered for firefighters. Combining this with the offer already on the table for support staff, the Service will be in budget deficit of at least £1.1m at the start of April 2023.  

Chief Fire Officer Chris Strickland explained: “We very much want our employees to be given a pay increase that reflects the current rate of inflation, but we also have a responsibility to deliver a balanced budget and these are currently at odds. We had budgeted for a two per cent increase but we now know it will be a minimum of five per cent, so we are likely to have to scale down the service we provide unless our funding situation significantly improves. 

“We are an incredibly lean fire service having made ongoing efficiency savings over the last 12 years equating to £8m, whilst at the same time continuing to improve the service we deliver to our communities. We simply cannot absorb further budget pressures without negatively impacting on our frontline service. We have reached a position where without additional funding we will be looking at closing at least three on-call fire stations and making a number of our vital professional support staff redundant.” 

Chris added: “As much as I want our employees to get the cost of living increase in pay they deserve, I don’t want to have to make anyone redundant or close any fire stations to do so. But, as things stand, we have little choice. The only glimmer of hope will be if the government allows us flexibility in how much council tax we can ask for in future years.” 

At the moment, fire and rescue services can only ask for a maximum of two per cent increase in council tax, which is around an additional £1.50 per year for Cambridgeshire council taxpayers (based on a Band D property). If the government allows services to ask for a higher increase of around £10 per year this would provide extra income and lessen the service reductions that would need to be made.   

Chris added: “We’ve told our staff about the situation and explained that we will need to plan for the worst whilst keeping everything crossed that the situation changes and we can continue to maintain the great level of service we provide to our communities.  

“We are nationally recognised as a cost effective and good fire and rescue service that is efficient, effective and looks after its people well. So it is demoralising to sit and make plans for service reductions knowing it will have a detrimental impact on the service we have built up over the years and are proud of. But without a change to our funding arrangements, we will have little choice.” 

Chair of the Fire Authority Councillor Edna Murphy, supported by Vice Chair Councillor Mohammed Jamil, said: “We have been put in this invidious position by the economic situation and ultimately by a failure over the years to provide a fair funding mechanism for Cambridgeshire. I call on the Government to provide us with the assurance we need that we will receive flexibility for next year’s budget, which would give us some mitigation.  

“This year’s increase in fires, as a result of the prolonged hot, dry weather, has shown us that we will need the fire service more in the future, not less. Reducing the Service’s ability to meet existing, never mind new, challenges feels all wrong, but we do not have any other choice in the circumstances.” 

The Service expects to know its budget for 2023/24 in December, including whether there will be any change to council tax rules.