I spoke from the platform panel at a rally last night about the proposed cuts to the fire service in Brighton & Hove (& East Sussex more widely).
There were around 100 people present including many firefighters. Politicians were there from across the political spectrum opposing the cuts. Simon Kirby, Tory MP for Brighton Kemptown, Nancy Platts from Labour and myself – both Kemptown PPCs (for Labour and the Greens respectively). And national fire brigade official Jim Parrott was there to present the firefighters’ case.
Des Prichard, the Chief Fire Officer bravely presented his difficult position of having legally to propose cuts to balance the budget, while knowing that the cuts would mean a worse service and potentially one posing more risks to the public.
He explained that the cuts arose because the Coalition Government cuts to public services meant the East Sussex Fire Service faced a reduction of £7m over the next few years to its existing modest budget, including £1m for the coming year. He said he had been to see the Minister to see if more money might be available after next year’s General Election and had been clearly told the answer was “NO”.
He added that he had been to see the Labour Shadow Minister to ask the same question, and sadly had received the same answer.
While it was good to see cross-party unity at the rally last night against the proposed cuts, these remarks from Des Prichard were telling. I asked Simon Kirby last night how he had the audacity to come to the rally to say he supported the firefighters when the cuts arose directly from his Government’s cuts to local authority budgets which he had voted for!
While no one would doubt the sincerity of Nancy Platts in her hostility to the proposed cuts, or the hard work she has put in to campaign against them, she too is undermined by the refusal of the Labour leadership to commit to providing any more money for the fire service.
All the main political parties – Tories, LibDems, UKIP and Labour accept the need for austerity and huge cuts to public services. Only the Green Party opposes them.
Another feature of the discussion last night was the public “consultation” on the proposed cuts undertaken by consultants on behalf of the ESFA. It was very poor. The questions themselves in the consultation were skewed in such a way as to make it very difficult to register opposition to the proposals. The background information made available was complex and hard to follow.
But the worst aspect by far was the failure of the consultation to engage the public in any meaningful way. Press releases and the occasion article appeared. Details were placed on the ESFA website. And a one-day exhibition in the Jubilee Library was held. But the overwhelming majority of the public did not hear about it.
Residents at the meeting last night all reported that nobody they knew had heard about the consultation
The ESFA website this morning confirms that 655 responses were received to the consultation. If so, 655 out of 760,000 people in the ESFA area is an appalling response rate by any criteria and proves definitively that the consultation failed in its statutory duty to inform and consult the public as users of the fire service. Interestingly, over a majority of the respondents expressing a preference disagreed with removing a fire engine from Brighton or Hove.
Fire brigade campaigners had managed through imaginative things like fire engines on the seafront and town centres had amassed ten thousands signatures against the proposed cuts – in practice a far bigger consultation than the “official” ESFA one.
In my professional work, I advise public bodies on how to carry out public consultations. My judgement is that this one was deeply flawed and did not meet its statutory duty to consult the public.
Next week the ESFA meets to receive the consultation outcome and decide on whether to implement the proposed cuts. I am hoping they will vote against. They should do so because the consultation was clearly inadequate and opposition in the City is strong. They should seek more time to investigate alternatives such as merging with West Sussex Fire Authority, and to campaign politically for more funds for the fire services.
Last night I proposed a joint letter from all the MPs and PPCs in the City to the ESFA to ask them to oppose the cutes. We are working on that as I write this blog. Watch this space !