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Fire and Rescue Services

1 pm

Mr. Greg Pope (Hyndburn) (Lab): I am grateful to have secured this debate, which is on a subject that is important for the people of Lancashire in general and particularly of east Lancashire. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) is present; I hope that she is able to catch your eye, Mr. Bayley, and has the chance to contribute to the debate.

I place on record my heartfelt thanks, and the thanks of my constituents, to the men and women of the Lancashire fire and rescue service. They do outstanding work on our behalf. It is said that in a fire we will flee the building but that the job of the fire and rescue service is to run into the building, but like many old sayings it has more than a grain of truth. I am grateful to them for the work that they do.

I welcome the review of fire and rescue services. Lancashire has historical arrangements for the siting of fire stations that reflect the county of old rather than the modern one. If we look back to 50 years ago, Lancashire had thousands of cotton mills, much heavy industry and engineering works, and hundreds of thousands of terraced houses that were mostly heated by coal, all of which presented a serious fire hazard. Now the cotton has gone, as has the heavy engineering and the heavy industry; the terraced houses are still there but they are no longer heated by coal, so the nature of the fire threat has changed substantially. As an example of that change, 50 years ago Lancashire had no motorways; it now has the most extensive motorway network of any English county. That presents a changed threat for the fire and rescue service.

I also commend the words of Lancashire’s chief fire officer, Peter Holland, who does an excellent job. It is easy for the public services to shy away from the tough decisions that have to be taken, but Peter Holland should be commended for having the bravery and the vision to propose a review. When launching it, he said:

That is absolutely right.

I turn to the proposals as they affect my constituency of Hyndburn. We have six fire engines. Two are full-time and four are retained, and they are spread across three fire stations. Hyndburn’s fire station in Accrington, which has two full-time engines and one retained, would lose the retained engine. Great Harwood fire station, which has two retained engines, would lose one of them. Haslingden fire station, which has one retained engine, would lose it, and the station would close. That would leave my constituency with three fire engines instead of six.

I turn to the statistics on which the proposals are based, and to Great Harwood fire station. I should declare an interest, Mr. Bayley, in that I grew up around the corner from that fire station, and my dad was a firefighter there—probably about a million years ago. Last year, Great Harwood’s two retained engines
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were mobilised 320 times; those incidents resulted in one fatality, and 68 people were rescued. It is worth bearing it in mind that 70 of those mobilisations were to areas covered by the Hyndburn fire station in Accrington, where it is proposed cutting one retained engine.

At the Hyndburn fire station in Accrington, which has two full-time engines and one retained, the proposals would result in the loss of the retained engine. Last year, Hyndburn fire engines were mobilised just over 2,000 times; those incidents resulted in five fatalities, and just over 600 people were saved.

On the figures published by Lancashire fire and rescue service, only 82 of those mobilisations were by the retained crew. However, I see a statistical flaw. The retained engine in Accrington was previously stationed at Oswaldtwistle fire station, which closed a few years ago. Most hon. Members will understand that a retained crew has a turn-out time to allow people to get from where they work or live to the fire station. Clearly, moving an engine from one station to another has an effect. There were difficulties in recruiting a retained crew in the year on which those statistics are based, which is why there were only 82 mobilisations by that engine.

I visited the Hyndburn fire station in August, and I met the crew of engine E702—the retained one. The crew said that they had already taken part in 168 mobilisations this year. In the first eight months of the year, the retained crew at Accrington had therefore responded to more than twice as many incidents as in the previous year, the year on which the review statistics were based. Given that by the end of this year the retained crew in Accrington are bound to have responded to more than 200 incidents, I am not convinced that we can afford to lose it.

The Haslingden fire station has one retained engine, and the review proposes that it be lost and that the station be closed. Last year, that engine and crew responded to 173 incidents, which resulted in five fatalities and 89 rescues. However, 23 of those incidents were out of the area—mainly in the area covered by the Rowtenstall fire station. I went to Haslingden fire station to meet the crew and to hear what they thought of the proposal to close their station. They met me with great courtesy and made me a cup of tea; they were about to explain how crucial they were to public safety in my constituency when the bell went. They had been called out to a fire. No matter what I say, nothing could be a more eloquent depiction of why that crew and that engine are needed. Sometimes, actions speak louder than words.

I want to get across the fact that all those fire stations—the Haslingden station, the Hyndburn station in Accrington and the Great Harwood station—are interdependent. For instance, Padiham fire station in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley has two retained engines; the proposal would mean losing one. However, Padiham sometimes turns out to incidents in the Great Harwood area, which has two retained engines—the proposal is to lose one of them—and the Great Harwood engines sometimes turn out for incidents in Padiham. They back up each other. It seems far from certain that a
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proposal for both fire stations to have only half the number of engines would meet concerns about public safety.

Lancashire fire and rescue service is absolutely right to hold a review. It is easy in public life to duck the tough decisions. It is right to face up to them. Councillor Bob Wilkinson, the chairman of the Lancashire combined fire authority, which also covers the unitary areas of Blackburn with Darwen and Blackpool, is right to face up to the challenge. We need a fire service that is fit for the 21st century, not one that looks back to the Lancashire of old.

I commend what Councillor Wilkinson said when he launched the consultation. He said that he wanted genuine consultation, that no decisions had yet been made, that the proposals were up for discussion, and that the combined fire authority would listen to the representations of members of the public and Members of Parliament before making their decision in December. I welcome that. It is important that the consultation process is transparent and that it commands public support. I am grateful that the combined fire authority will be listening to our deliberations today.

Last year, the four retained fire engines in my constituency turned out 600 times and rescued more than 100 people. I wish to say to the Minister, as I know he takes a great interest in these issues, and through him to the Lancashire fire and rescue service, that if there are 600 occasions on which the four retained engines turned out and 100 people were rescued, can we really afford to lose three of the four retained engines in my constituency? My view and the view of the overwhelming majority of my constituents is that we cannot.

1.10 pm

Kitty Ussher (Burnley) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) on securing this debate at such a critical time. I understand that the consultation closes the week after next so it is very useful to have this opportunity to make our concerns known at this time. Thank you, Mr. Bayley, for giving me the opportunity to contribute. My thanks go to my hon. Friend and the Minister.

In the market town of Padiham in my constituency there are two retained fire engines and crews. The proposal is to halve that to one. I had the privilege of visiting Padiham fire station a few weeks ago and had not only a cup of tea, but a quick ride in the engine, which has always been a childhood fantasy, so it was very enjoyable. I listened to the concerns of the crew who are dedicated, hard-working people. They also have day jobs and volunteer practically all hours of the night and whenever they are available to keep my constituents safe. They explained to me their very real concerns about what is being proposed.

On Sunday, I attended a public meeting for the residents of Padiham and, more widely, Burnley. It was the largest public meeting I have ever attended in Padiham—larger than the public meeting we had on proposed changes to the hospital, which people were pretty excited about. There were more than 150 people who were unanimous in their concerns about what is being proposed. The main concern is that the
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population of Padiham is growing; it is a great place to live and is expanding. It seems counter-intuitive to halve the fire cover at such a time. I have also been told that the two retained crews in Padiham are often asked to help in the much larger neighbouring town of Burnley. If they are pulled into Burnley, I am concerned about what happens if there is a fire locally in Padiham. Surely, that is not in the interests of Padihamers.

The crews also cover rural areas outside my constituency, not just in the constituency of my hon. Friend, but in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and indeed even further afield in the villages of Higham, Simonstone, Read, Sabden and, of course, Great Harwood. Those are a spattering of the villages in east Lancashire that are dependent on the two crews. Travel times are always longer in rural areas and we are concerned about the effect on populations where the coverage will halve.

We have some potentially complex situations in nearby industrial estates, for example on the Shuttleworth Mead estate and across the border in Simonstone. I am optimistic that we will have even more manufacturing companies in my constituency now that we have, I hope, been successful in obtaining assisted area status for Padiham. That could lead to fires that need a large resource, not one that is declining.

I congratulate the Padiham Express and its sister publication the Burnley Express on the way they have explained to people the threat that is facing them—I have had an enormous response. I have also heard that we have been in this situation in the past. When my predecessor Peter Pike was the MP it was proposed in a routine review of the configuration of services that the capacity at Padiham be halved and then in the cold light of day when the fire authority looked at the proposals, it realised it was not in the public interest and did not go ahead.

This is another of those situations and I hope that the Minister will give us some reassurance that perhaps the fire authority will again decide not to halve the capacity at Padiham.

1.14 pm

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) on securing this debate. I particularly commend the way he has gone about it: the methodology he adopted is a template for how MPs should approach these Adjournment debates. He placed the issue in its historical context by explaining the background of his area in Lancashire and talked about the terraced houses, what the fire threat was and how many people he knows who have lost their lives as a result of that situation. He researched the facts, figures and finances, but more importantly, I imagine he visited the people affected. I congratulate him on his story of the bell going off at Haslingden fire station. That is, as he said, a telling piece of evidence for his case. My hon. Friend acknowledged the good intent of the Lancashire fire authority and its acceptance of its duty in facing up to the tough decisions that we all know it takes. He then coolly, logically and with passion put his argument in that context. I thank him for that.

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My hon. Friend might not thank me that in my research I looked at his website. It pointed out that,

In my mind that is a badge of honour and I commend him.

I will write to Councillor Wilkinson and the chief fire officer, Peter Holland, and his deputy, Peter O’Brian, and enclose a copy of Hansard from this debate so that the argument that has been made is relayed to him through my office. I undertake to do that and in preparation for my research I will put on the record what I discovered about the context of where this comes from in relation to Government policy. I hope that will help the consultation and the process go forward both for my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) who also did her research and visited the fire engine. I can tell her it is not the second time this has happened; it is about the fourth. I cannot agree to the last request, but I can pass that strong argument on.

In the national context, the strategy that the Government are pursuing is to put the emphasis on prevention. There are many weapons that we have in that regard, for example: building regulations; the work of the fire and rescue authorities themselves; new equipment provided through the new dimension programme; and the on-going programmes for improvements in radio communications and regional controls centres. All those will make this country the best in the world for fire and rescue authorities at work. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn in congratulating and passing on thanks to the men and women of the fire service who risk their lives and tragically occasionally lose their lives through what they do.

I strongly and passionately believe that the success of our fire and rescue strategy is one of the unsung successes of this Government. I acknowledge the work that was done by previous Governments, but the figures speak for themselves. We have had a decline year on year in the number of deaths from fire. We now have the lowest figures since 1959. I put that down to the intervention by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, who was responsible for the strategy over the past nine years.

The matters that my hon. Friend raised today are included in a consultation document issued, as he said, by Lancashire fire and rescue service. It has the snappy title of “Integrated Risk Management Plan Draft Year 4 Action Plan 2007-08”. I think that “Draft” is the word to which he would most want me to draw attention.

The debate is timely. It enables me to pass on information that my hon. Friend has given and to advise him on the best means by which to present his case. It also has a spin-off: it enables me to make a general point about the fact that the Government have devolved to local levels decision making in the fire and rescue service. I need to make the point that it is not the role of Ministers to agree the operational proposals in the plans of any local fire and rescue authority—of course, my hon. Friend did not ask me to do so. That is
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a matter for the elected members of the authority in question. They are best placed to act on the professional advice of chief officers. They balance the competing local demands placed on the resources available to them. They are the best judges of the balance that should be struck for the benefit of the communities that they serve.

That arrangement is part of the Government’s policy to devolve functions down the delivery chain whenever possible. We aim to move decisions away from central Government towards local areas, local people and their elected representatives. I urge my hon. Friend, therefore, to continue the work with his local fire authority. I have been able to establish that he has time available to do that—I will give more details of that—and that local officials are happy to meet him to discuss the points that he has put so cogently today. They have given me that assurance.

My Department has been in touch with Lancashire fire and rescue service. It confirms that the status of the integrated risk management plan, or IRMP as it is known in the jargon of the trade, remains a consultation document. It went out for full public consultation for 12 weeks from 24 August. As my hon. Friend said, that exercise has not yet finished. It ends on 15 November, but the elected members of the combined fire authority will not consider the outcome of the exercise until 18 December, so my hon. Friends have time on their side.

The local basis for the integrated risk management plans is spelt out clearly in the Department’s document entitled “The Fire and Rescue National Framework”. The latest edition was published last April and covers the years 2006 to 2008. It states:

The departmental framework document sets out five issues that need to be addressed in the plan. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn will want to refer to those when he makes his representations. First, it seeks moves to reduce the number of fires, road traffic accidents and other emergency incidents. Secondly, it seeks moves to reduce the severity of injuries in each incident. Thirdly, it seeks moves to reduce the economic and social impact of fires and other emergency incidents. Fourthly, it seeks plans that will safeguard the environment. Finally, it seeks plans that provide value for money.

Lancashire, like every other authority, has to keep its plan under review and to revise it regularly. Those arrangements give my hon. Friend and all other hon. Members good opportunities to make representations on behalf of their constituents. Under the previous arrangements, such opportunities did not exist. National standards applied instead, which were dictated by Whitehall. Some of those were set as long ago as 1938, when population patterns, and certainly the situation in Lancashire, which my hon. Friend described, were very different. I have described how, today, IRMPs are based on risk to life. The old national standards were based only on types and location of property, so my hon. Friend’s points about the changes in Lancashire are very pertinent.

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I hope that what I have said will prove to be of assistance to my hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn and for Burnley in presenting their cases on behalf of their constituents. The debate has provided me with an opportunity to make a more general point about modernisation in the fire and rescue service. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said last week in the preface to the local government White Paper that we must

In the fire and rescue service, we have already seen evidence of that. I hope that I have helped my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn and that he will accept my thanks for helping me in his turn.

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