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Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): I shall try to emulate the Minister of State, Scotland Office in the previous debate by galloping through what I recognise is a very local problem. I am grateful to the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), for his presence. I understand that the brief was a late one; he had to take over from his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, Home Office. I am also grateful that Mr. David Winnick--
Mr. Shepherd : Certainly, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am also grateful that the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) is present and would like to contribute. I am sure that that is agreeable to the Minister.
As the Minister knows, the West Midlands fire service, with the approval of the West Midlands fire authority, is seeking approval for a proposal to close the single-engine fire stations at Bloxwich and Aldridge and to replace them, under a private finance initiative, with a two-engine community fire station, in a location that is more central to the combined areas of their responsibilities. The local authority advises me that the single-pump Aldridge fire station covers a population of 59,271 and the single-pump Bloxwich fire station a population of 49,814. As the population of Walsall is 259,488, that total of 109,488 represents 42 per cent. of the borough's population. As the new location means that more people will be further away from the new station than at present, the public has, understandably, widely expressed opposition to the proposal. At present, Bloxwich attends an annual average of 1,277 incidents in its station area and, as the fire service document "A Better Way?" states, is busier than most one-pump stations.
The station also undertakes community fire safety work aimed at the local community. The fire service document tells us that the average figure for Aldridge is 662 incidents and that the fire station also undertakes a small amount of community fire safety work. None of those figures has been put in context. It is not clear whether Bloxwich is the first, second or third busiest one-pump station in the west midlands, or whether Aldridge is at the bottom of the scale or very nearly so. It is also not clear whether fire stations in the region are more immediately in need of upgrading or replacing with a new community fire station.
Aldridge fire station opened in 1968 and comprised a four-bay appliance room with a covered wash-down area adjoining a two-storey block which formed the operational and administrative side of the station, with offices, lecture room, and stores on the ground floor and recreational, dining and sleeping facilities on the second floor. A training wing, including two lecture rooms and living and sleeping accommodation for 16 students, was attached to the station but was closed when the West Midlands brigade training centre in Smethwick opened. The station has served the separate communities that comprise Aldridge-Brownhills well throughout the intervening years.
On 23 May 2000 I received a letter from Mr. K. J. Knight, the chief fire officer of the West Midlands fire service, advising me that he was proposing to develop a community fire station for the Aldridge and Bloxwich areas. The two-pump community fire station would be built, financed and operated by a private sector partner, allowing the West Midlands fire service to deliver what he claimed would be an improved service to the community. Mr. Knight went on:
The fire service set out various options for Aldridge fire station, which it described as a one-fire-engine station staffed 24 hours a day by four full-time watches whose annual number of incidents over the past three years was 662, in addition to which it undertakes a small amount of community fire safety work. The running costs, not including central overhead costs, are £755,251.
The three options were to do nothing, to refurbish or to rebuild on site. It is claimed that to rebuild a new fire station on the existing site to current standards would cost £2.2 million. At no point did the fire service mention that there had also been a training wing of two lecture rooms and living and sleeping accommodation for 16 students, nor was there an explanation of what the current standard is or whether it is a statutory requirement.
I sought an explanation when I wrote to the chief fire officer on 27 November, raising among other things my concerns about the admission on page 4 that a second fire engine consistently fails to reach fires in Aldridge within the time recommended by the Home Office. The response was a deafening silence. I did not receive a reply to my letter, and when I wrote again on 19 January, Mr. Knight responded only to my questions on response times. I still do not know what the current standard is, or whether it is a statutory requirement.
Similarly, despite writing on 6 March, I have failed to establish what is the projected response time from the fire service's "optimum location", which is widely believed to be in Pelsall, to Streetly, or whether any test runs have been carried out to confirm the reliability of the computer-generated times that the fire service quoted to me.
The refurbishment options costed have been estimated for comparative purposes. Many facilities that would be required to achieve a minimum acceptable standard of accommodation for future needs cannot be
Building condition surveys identify substantial repair and maintenance costs in the next four or five years. There are no community fire safety facilities on the site. In view of those factors, the Bloxwich station is considered a high priority for replacement. Refurbishment of the existing station would cost approximately £637,000. I shall not go through the options, as the documents are readily available to the Home Office.
Many of my constituents feel that the best-value criterion is impossible to assess without reference to the state of the stock across the region. They are also puzzled by Mr. Knight's comment that there is a potential for over-provision at Bloxwich, when that pump station is one of the busiest in the west midlands. The over-provision is presumably a reflection of the capacity of the two-pump Walsall fire station to meet some of the present responsibilities of Bloxwich. That is what prompted the fire service's response at the public consultation meeting at Bloxwich, where it was argued that it makes more sense to relocate Bloxwich further into its area. The widely leaked preferred location in Pelsall Villa football ground at Bush grove off Walsall road, Pelsall, would be outside Bloxwich's current area and close to Walsall fire station. It would create a greater bunching of fire stations towards the centre of Walsall.
In politics, it is generally thought that Christmas and August are the worst times to conduct an effective consultation. Mr. Dale Hall, the project design and report author of Opinion Research Services Ltd., which is based at the university of Wales in Swansea, agreed with me that the timing of the consultation process was "not ideal". However, Mr. Knight told me that he had been advised that it was one of the best times to consult, as people were on holiday and at home and therefore had more time to consider the proposals. That has not been my experience of what has now become, for increasing numbers of families, a major holiday period.
None the less, the process commenced. Four public meetings were held, and six people's panels were convened. As I had attended meetings--including one that had been arranged by the Fire Brigades Union prior to the public consultation--I made a point of attending the one that the fire service organised on Saturday 13 January. At that meeting, a petition against the proposals was presented to the chairman of the West Midlands fire and civil defence authority, Councillor Peter Bilson, by the leader of Walsall council, Mike Bird. It was claimed that it contained 22,000 names.
On 26 February, I received a report on the public consultation by Opinion Research Services Ltd., entitled "Community Fire Safety Strategy". It summarised the conclusions of the six people's panels, each of which comprised between eight and 10 members, and the four public meetings. The report revealed that membership of the people's panels was restricted to people aged between 21 and 55. That is of great concern, as Aldridge-Brownhills has the highest proportion of residents aged between 40 and pensionable age in the country. Despite the age restriction, four out of the six panels decided against the proposals, and two were in favour.
"We believe the findings are reliably indicative of public opinion in Walsall".
"There will be no job losses: that is recorded. There will also be no loss of fire engines. It is up to the chief how the fire fighters are deployed. All the laws and standards need to be met." We all accept that. All the fire officers whom I have met have been principally concerned about their ability to meet the Home Office response times for the new fire station, wherever it is located. Clearly, without a specific location it is difficult to assess whether that is true.
The report was incorporated in a much larger one prepared for the West Midlands fire authority's consideration. I understand from a member of the authority that, unfortunately, it was not made available to members until a few hours before their meeting on 9 February 2001, at which they were asked to approve the proposals, which they did. The report contains several press cuttings indicating that 2,000 letters were presented to the fire service, yet annexe H of the report records only 1,612 letters having been received, although, according to page 172 of the report, 1,267 were discounted as being outside the time of the consultation. Annexe J relates to Walsall council and reports the views of council committees, including the policy and resources committee, the Walsall area planning committee, the highways and transportation committee and various other area planning committees.
"consideration should be given to the modernisation or rebuilding of Bloxwich Fire Station at a location within the Bloxwich area." Darlaston area planning committee resolved that
"this Committee opposes any proposals to close existing fire stations on safety grounds as the extra time taken to reach a fire from a centralised location could lead to loss of life". Willenhall area planning committee resolved that it
"notes the Report in respect of its own area and supports its colleagues in other areas which could be affected by this detrimental move". As far as I can find out, the fire authority has organised no visit to the fire stations affected by the proposal.
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Before I call the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), I should inform hon. Members that, as is traditional with the half-hour Adjournment debate, he has notified me, the initiator of the debate and the Minister of his interest in participating.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): I shall take up very little time, to allow as much time as possible for the Minister. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) for allowing me a couple of minutes. As has been pointed out, the amalgamation affects Bloxwich fire station in my constituency. There is significant concern about that, and I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, for whom I have a great deal of time and respect, that that should also be taken into consideration.
Bloxwich is a densely populated residential and business area of the borough, and, according to the West Midlands fire authority, Bloxwich fire station is one of the busiest of the one-pump stations. I first wrote to the Minister on 27 September 2000, stating that there was a good deal of understandable anxiety about the matter. Since then, I have been in correspondence with Ministers and the chair of the fire service ,as well as with the chief fire officer. On the whole, I am not happy with the response that I received. It may be that, regardless of today's debate and the consultations to which the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills referred, the issue is clear cut and will go ahead, but I must emphasise that there is a feeling that the amalgamation should not proceed.
Obviously, I cannot speak for Aldridge or Pelsall, but in Bloxwich worry continues and it is shared by a number of residents and elected local representatives. In those circumstances, I hope that today's debate means that the matter is looked at again. I do not expect the Minister to say that it is off, but I urge that the amalgamation of the fire stations in that part of the borough be reviewed. I hope that that will be possible.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) on securing the debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) for his intervention on behalf of his constituency. As the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State cannot be here today, unfortunately, owing to a late governmental commitment. I am happy to stand in for him and I shall pass the full text of the debate to him for his attention.
I understand the concern that has been expressed about the proposal by the West Midlands fire and civil defence authority to replace the two fire stations at Aldridge and Bloxwich with a new fire station serving both areas. Before dealing with specific points, I shall make a few background remarks. The fire service as a whole in this country consistently achieves high standards of performance, often in difficult and hazardous circumstances. Its high level of performance in responding to fire calls has been confirmed year after year by the Audit Commission. According to the latest figures for 1999-2000, the fire service nationally met attendance standards in responding to fire calls on 96 per cent. of occasions. In the west midlands, standards were met on 95.3 per cent. of occasions. Obviously, we shall strive to raise those levels, but that shows a good level of performance.
The fire service is also to be commended for the range of community-based initiatives that it undertakes throughout the country to promote fire safety in the home. We want such progress to be measured against the commitment to prevention as the first line of defence against fire, and we want to develop a more clear vision and strategy for the service. I welcome particularly the excellent programme of community fire safety work being implemented by the West Midlands fire and civil defence authority. Throughout that process, we have established the principle of best value and the West Midlands fire and civil defence authority, as the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said, is defined as a best value authority under the Local Government Act 1999. Under that duty of best value, authorities are required to secure continual improvement in the exercise of their functions, having regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness. It is their duty to do that, and the statutory responsibility for achieving it lies with the fire authority. It is for the West Midlands fire and civil defence authority to keep its fire cover provision under review and, in particular, to provide a service that meets the national standards of fire cover.
I turn now to the Aldridge and Bloxwich fire stations. In January last year, the authority submitted a bid for support under the private finance initiative to replace single-appliance fire stations at Aldridge and Bloxwich with a new two-appliance fire station within the Walsall metropolitan borough council area. In April, it was selected as one of the bids to go forward to the next stage. The authority is in the process of developing its outline business case, at which point we shall wish to consider, in consultation with professional advisers, the scope of the scheme, whether PFI requirements are met and, in particular, whether the scheme represents value for money.
The private finance initiative has been mentioned at various points in the debate, and I well understand the controversy that arises about that method of financing public sector investment. I have the largest PFI hospital in the country in my constituency and there has been much controversy about that. In fact, the building work is many months ahead of schedule and such a method has been efficient, but strong worries persist. The Department for Education and Employment has recently announced a £90 million PFI initiative for improving schools in eastern Norfolk. Head teachers
If the Government approve in principle the allocation of PFI credits and the scheme is endorsed by the interdepartmental project review group, it would be open to the authority to put the project out to competitive tender, select a preferred bidder and develop its final business case. At that stage, the project would be closely examined to ensure that PFI requirements continued to be met.
I now come to the nub of the debate, and I emphasise as strongly as possible that considerations relevant to a PFI project are different from those that come into play when the closure of fire stations is under consideration. A separate statutory process applies. Approval of any PFI scheme does not of itself imply that other consents will necessarily be forthcoming. I shall describe in a few moments the procedures relevant to closing fire stations.
Several points were made about public consultation, which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary must take into account when examining any application. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills has put on the record the weaknesses that he believes are inherent in the process. His views can be taken into account both by the relevant authorities and by my right hon. Friend when matters reach him.
The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills referred to correspondence with the chief fire officer. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that, on a couple of occasions, he was invited to a meeting to discuss his concerns? I know that he was unable to attend the fire authority meeting to which he referred. I urge him to enter into correspondence and discuss directly with the chief fire officer the concerns that he raised. That form of communication is important for resolving the issues.
I understand that the authority expects to submit its outline business case to the Home Office next month. Section 19(4) of the Fire Services Act 1947 applies and it is separate from the PFI process. A fire authority cannot, under that statute, reduce the number of fire stations, fire appliances and fire-fighting posts without the express consent of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. The authority's proposed closure of Aldridge and Bloxwich fire stations when the new station is operational would require an application under section 19. To date, the Government have received no such application from the fire authority.
How will my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary deal with those applications when they arrive? His role is specific and he can grant approval only if he is satisfied that three conditions have been met. First, the proposals must have been sufficiently widely publicised in appropriate detail and with adequate time to enable interested parties to make representations. That is the nub of my response to the hon. Gentleman's many questions. My right hon. Friend will have to consider various matters at that stage. The age of panels, the timing over Christmas and so forth can be raised legitimately when my right hon. Friend is considering those questions. Secondly, my right hon. Friend must be satisfied that the representations have been properly considered by the authority and, thirdly, Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services must advise that national standards of fire cover will be maintained.
My right hon. Friend must ensure that those three important conditions are met, and he can assess them only after an application under section 19 has been made. I repeat that no such application has yet been received, which makes it difficult for me to comment in detail, except to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North and the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills have raised important issues for the record. I can give the assurance that if an application is received, we shall also take other representations--for example, from whoever may be the Member of Parliament at the time--into account. I can give the further assurance that no proposal will be approved unless we are entirely satisfied that national fire cover standards are being maintained--a critical question for the Government and for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.
To conclude, I repeat that I understand the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North and the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills. The authority will have to consult and will know about the issues raised in our debate. If an application is made under section 19, it will be considered by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. Consultation, national fire cover and the question whether the authority has considered the issue properly will be matters of concern to my right hon. Friend, and it will be entirely appropriate for any Member of Parliament to address those matters at that stage.