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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Time is up.

5 Feb 1997 : Column 981

Fire Services (Essex)

1.30 pm

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): There is a crisis in the fire service in Essex. Before this debate, a local journalist asked me who I was going to blame. He misunderstood the motive for the debate. It is not to apportion blame but to identify that there is an acute problem with fire cover in Essex, and to try to point the way forward. If I make measured criticism, it is only to demonstrate that the county council's consultation process on the fire service review is deficient.

The public's expectation of what should be considered in assessing the adequacy of fire cover is not the same as that of the Home Office. Government resources are generally inadequate for England and Wales. The distribution formula needs to be revised. I believe that the Home Office is considering how it assesses fire cover and risk category. I hope that that process will be completed with greater expedition.

The existing criteria by which the Home Office judge the efficiency and adequacy of fire cover take account of property but not of lives, which are of paramount importance to all hon. Members. They assume that call-outs for fire appliances occur at convenient times. In practice, call-outs often happen simultaneously. In Essex last summer, on several occasions all fire appliances were out on call at the same time, leaving no cover for further emergencies. Fire incidents are, by nature, not routine.

The Home Office's criteria disadvantage Essex, and especially those of us in the south of Essex. Essex has a high number of road traffic accidents. It has many A roads, on which, unhappily, many accidents occur. We have a high inspection rate, which is critical in saving lives but which is not reflected in the Home Office criteria. The Lakeside shopping centre alone requires 360 inspections a year. That would be doubled if we included the whole West Thurrock retail park.

In addition to major traffic infrastructure, we have petrochemical industries all along the river. My constituency includes the QE II Dartford-Thurrock crossing. There is a major airport at Stansted, and soon the channel tunnel route will enter Essex in my constituency. The river requires extra fire cover because of riverside industries and the docks. The river also means that fire engines cannot come across the river to Southend from Kent. The borders of counties such as Sussex and Surrey allow reciprocity between counties.

I regret that Essex county council did not appeal against its standard spending assessment this year. That was a mistake. It did ask to meet the Home Office Minister, Baroness Blatch, but that request was turned down. I hope that that decision will be reviewed. I was told that the council had approached the right hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) to seek a meeting with Essex Members but had had no response. I put that to the right hon. Gentleman yesterday, but he said that that was not correct. That is between him and the county.

In the autumn, I was approached by the county's chief executive for a meeting to discuss the crisis in the fire service. I offered him some 20 occasions for such a meeting. I followed up the offer of those dates with telephone calls and correspondence, but he was unable to arrange a meeting. Getting the fire service review

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documents that I have with me from the chief fire officer's representative a few weeks ago was like extracting teeth from a whale. The county council's consultation and powers of persuasion have been deficient.

In my constituency, the public consultation meeting on the fire service review was held at 5 pm. The county said that that was the borough council's choice. In response, I said that, while it should meet the borough council, the public consultation should be in addition to, not merged with, proper consultation with the borough council.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mackinlay: No.

The Fire Brigades Union has taken the initiative in protecting and promoting the fire service in Essex. We should acknowledge that it is a representative body of dedicated, skilled public servants who must deal every day with the harrowing trauma of road traffic accidents and domestic fires.

The revised SSA that the Government have awarded Essex provides sufficient cover only to meet fire service wages and pensions. That applies also to other counties, much of whose budgets go on wages and pensions. The county council's triennial review is happening at the same time as the budgetary process. I accept that the county council faces difficult choices. We were told yesterday that it was likely that there would be a further £1.5 million reduction in the fire service budget, in addition to the matters under consideration in the review. That fills me with alarm.

The review explores the possibility of closing fire stations at Rochford, Leigh--with its population of 80,000--and Canvey Island. I recognise that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) is in his place. Corringham could lose one appliance.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay): Corringham fire station is in my constituency and I take a special interest. It covers the petrochemical areas of Shell Haven and Mobil on Coryton peninsula, two of the largest processing areas in Britain, which service many big oil tankers every day.

Mr. Mackinlay: The hon. Lady is correct. The nearest whole-time fire station that will have to meet the deficiencies if the closures and service reductions are enacted will be Basildon, which deals already with 3,000 call-outs a year.

I am concerned about the Purfleet Garrison estate area of my constituency. As long as 20 years ago, and certainly in the 1986 review, it was identified as an area of great concern. The Essex fire service cannot meet the attendance time recommended by the Home Office for Purfleet, being a B risk category area. The attendance time for B risk is one appliance in five minutes and two appliances in eight minutes. That time cannot be met for that critical part of my constituency. The problem cannot be abated by fire appliances from Greater London. The old reciprocity principle has long gone; local authorities decided to charge for fire services provided across county boundaries. I regret that. That means less fire cover for Purfleet and Aveley in my constituency.

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The Southend conurbation, which has 20 per cent. of the county's population, has seven fire stations, three whole-time and four retained. Under the review, two stations would be closed. That would leave five stations to deal with a quarter of the county's calls. Some 44 stations will remain to deal with the rest of the county--a perverse distribution of fire cover. I do not, however, dismiss the needs of other areas of the county and I know that rural districts have special problems. I appreciate the attendance of the right hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton) in the Chamber for today's debate. In an ideal world, there should be full-time stations at Braintree, Stansted and Witham. We should be expanding our services, not contemplating their reduction.

I have already mentioned my constituency and the special categories and risks that exist there and elsewhere along the river front. Another cause for great concern in our county is the significant growth in the so-called modern sandwich-panel buildings that are prevalent in the food storage industry and among factories, offices and warehouses. They present unforeseen opportunities for fire spread, with its attendant loss of life.

The review documents--to which, as I said, it was difficult to gain access--show areas of residential property in my constituency that are category D. One such area in my constituency is Stifford Clays and I know there are other examples in other constituencies. In category D areas, a pump has to arrive in 20 minutes. I am worried about the situation, not just in Essex, but nationally. We put property before people. Unhappily, the overwhelming majority of deaths caused by fire occur in residential properties, not factories and offices. I hope that the Home Secretary will acknowledge the fact that standards need to be re-examined.

What needs to be done? I have acknowledged--I reiterate--that Essex county council has enormous resource problems. I could have reduced the debate to a party political slanging match--the temptation is there, as we are now in an election period--but it would not be productive or useful for the people of Essex; nor would it advance the matter that I wish to bring to the attention of the House: the immediate crisis in fire cover in Essex.

I recognise that there is a problem with resources and that the county council has to weigh the fire services against other services such as social services and education. However, the council needs to reflect. The review--the consultation process--has been deficient; the council has been conducting it at the same time as it has been considering its budget. We have been told that there is likely to be a significant reduction in moneys for fire services as a result of the budget. As a consequence, there should be a moratorium in the review; the council must stop and consider the matter more critically.

The Home Office should recognise that Essex is an unusual county of great diversity, with a growing population. In the period up to 2001, my borough alone will have increased its population by 10,000 in 10 years. It is part of the Thames gateway--a welcome Government initiative, supported by the Opposition, designed to bring new industries, employment and residential properties to that part of south-east England. The river itself presents enormous difficulties in terms of fire cover. I hope that the Home Office will be prepared to reconsider those matters.

If my pleadings this morning do not bring a halt to the threatened cuts and if either the budget cuts or the review result in the county council making an application to the

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Home Secretary under section 19 to permit a reduction in personnel, appliances or the closure of stations, I ask the Minister to hold a public inquiry. He is entitled to do so under section 19(8), and if a public inquiry is held, many of the matters that I have mentioned can be amplified and those issues that I have been unable to raise owing to lack of time can be explored in full.

That would allow the county council to have a fair day in court; it would also allow everyone interested in this important public service, as well as the representative organisations, particularly the Fire Brigades Union, to state their case. It would enable the Home Office to understand the special nature of the county of Essex, which is not reflected in its standard spending assessments or in the resources available for its important public services.

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