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18 Mar 2008 : Column 183WH—continued

The idea is that the second fire engine will become retained, with firefighters who will be called out. We are told that they will be able to be deployed five minutes after the initial pump. I understand how retained fire
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stations work—there is one in Winterton, where I live. I know that they recruit more people than they need and call them up when there is an emergency. The first four or five to arrive get into the engine and off they go. That works well in many places all over the country.

In Goole, however, I asked the fire officer where those people would come from. He had a map of Goole, and someone had simply drawn a circle covering the theoretical five-minute travel time. To anyone who knows Goole, that beggars belief. There is a major road through the centre—Boothferry road—which comes to a level crossing straight through the centre of the town. The level crossing is regularly closed because of the amount of rail traffic through the town. It is not at all uncommon for the centre of the town to be completely gridlocked for long periods, particularly during the day. Nearly all the housing in Goole is the other side of that road and railway line from the fire station, and the idea that people from there could reach Goole fire station in five minutes beggars belief. That might be true for people in the small number of houses on the other side of Boothferry road and off Rawcliffe road, but it is unlikely that the station could recruit all the retained firefighters that it needed from such a small part of the town.

The chief fire officer gave me the idea that the only cut that we were being asked to accept in Goole was that the second fire engine would arrive five minutes after the first. I do not believe that that is the case, but even if it were, how desirable is that? There have been some serious house fires in the area, and we all know what happens: the first firefighters to arrive go inside the property as quickly as they can if they think that lives are at risk. We know from previous reviews of fire services that they have to backed up by the services of another fire engine. In theory, any delay could mean that people would be put at greater risk, because firefighters might not go into a building. In reality, firefighters will still go in, but without the proper back-up.

David Davis: I support the hon. Gentleman’s case because I, too, depend on that fire station. One reason why my area of Howden depends on Goole fire station is the difficulty of recruiting retained firefighters. There are gaps in cover during the day, particularly from noon to late afternoon. It is already difficult to recruit, but there proposal for Goole is, in many ways, a much tougher contract than the one that operates in Howden. How difficult will it be to provide the second fire engine, for both his area of the world and mine?

Mr. Cawsey: I agree entirely with the right hon. Gentleman. On local issues, I always think of him as a right hon. Friend, because they are important to both of us.

Another matter to consider is what will happen if people are recruited in the first place, but the staffing cannot be maintained later. There was a time when Howden was properly staffed all day with retained crew, but now it cannot be. What will happen if Goole goes down that route and finds at some future point that it cannot keep the right number of retained firefighters? From that point on, everything would be connected to everything. If Goole fire station were not there, we would rely on Howden. If Howden could not act, we would rely on Snaith. In the other direction,
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Old Goole would have to rely on Crowle in north Lincolnshire. If Crowle had to cover Old Goole, Epworth would have to cover Crowle. There would be a knock-on effect, and what started off with a simple decision in Goole would affect fire cover all over the place. That can be avoided by the simple decision to keep both fire tenders in Goole full time.

I have mentioned the fact that Goole is on the edge of the M62. There was debate earlier about what FSEC includes. It certainly does not include road traffic accidents, which is of great concern to me. There are any number of road traffic accidents on the M62 every year. I do not know whether right hon. and hon. Members listen out for reports in the same way as me and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden, but I frequently hear the words, “In the vicinity of junction 36,” which is the Goole turn off. The Goole fire station is frequently called out. For that not to be thrown into the equation for calculating future risk is bizarre in the extreme, and local firefighters have told me that it is a big concern to them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes mentioned Flixborough, which I now represent. People will not forget the impact of that incident. When we look at the south bank, we will see similar chemical industries to those that were based at Flixborough, which is another concern about the proposals.

East Riding of Yorkshire council’s scrutiny team is looking into the proposals and has set up a review panel to take evidence and to make recommendations to the council. I spoke to the panel at the Goole leisure centre. I hasten to add that there were only a small number of members of the scrutiny committee present, rather than the whole committee. Sadly, there are not that many Labour members of the council, and the panel was made up of Tories and Lib Dems—none of my Goole colleagues were on it. I thought that we had had a sympathetic hearing, so I was flabbergasted when the panel said that it supported the chief fire officer’s proposals for Goole. However, I was pleased that the full scrutiny committee of the council threw that recommendation out. The council itself is supportive of everything that has been said here today.

North Lincolnshire council, which is the other local authority in my constituency, is meeting tomorrow night to consider a motion from the ruling Labour group—that gives me some hope—to oppose the proposed fire service cuts. As far as I have seen, that is in step with the local response. The number of people who have responded is simply amazing. The Fire Brigades Union has shown me copies of its polling and the slips that it has sent to local people to fill in. There were thousands of responses, even after I had sifted through to find only those from my constituents. The Goole—Howden Courier and the Goole Times have run articles and campaigns to try to change the Goole decision, and the Scunthorpe Telegraph has run a campaign for the Kirton fire station in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), which I am sure he will say something about later. The public are saying no. As I said, the more they hear, the less they like.

When the chief spoke to me, he told me that his aspirations were for better kit for road traffic accidents and floods, and more fire prevention work. Nobody,
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including the FBU, disagrees with that agenda. The FBU told me simply, “We can do those things without cuts,” and said that it would work with the chief fire officer and the authority to advise them on how to do so. That being the case, there is no better reason why we should not go back to the drawing board and start again to ensure that we have the best protected and best equipped fire service for our communities.

11.43 am

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak for the first time under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) on securing a debate on this important issue. She is a dogged fighter for her constituents’ interests, and her contribution was another example of the fight that she puts up to protect them. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) brought a great deal of expertise on local government and its reactions to the proposals, but I should like to speak more generally about the issue.

The essence of the union’s case against the fire authority’s strategic plan is that it would lead to 110 job losses for firefighters, some at Waltham and some at Immingham, and others scattered around the south Humberside area. We can see the serried ranks of south Humberside firefighters facing us in the debate.

Cuts in personnel are always called efficiency savings. I deprecate such a mindless Gershon process—it drives on, even though in this instance it is cutting right to the bone rather than at flesh. This is the latest in a long salami-slicing process of cutting the number of firefighters in the area and it must stop, because the area has one of the highest risk levels in the country. It is a chemical production and oil refining centre. There are 32 industrial sites in the Humberside area that are at the highest risk level, as defined under Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1999.

The motorways bring their problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole mentioned the M62, but the M180 and the A180 are in a disgraceful state of repair. We have made representations about the traffic pressures that are building on the A160 and about the A46, which is perhaps one of the most murderous roads in the country. The Grimsby Telegraph contains a litany of reports of crashes and cases in which the fire brigade is called out for rescue work.

There are two sets of docks in the area: at Immingham, which has the busiest docks in the country, and Grimsby, and a busy estuary, around which huge traffic and shipping pressures are building. We have had floods—they were worse on the north bank than on the south—that were a problem for the fire brigade, and we have now had an earthquake. I always wanted Grimsby to be the epicentre of something, but I did not envisage that it would be the epicentre of an earthquake. Nevertheless, that is another hazard to add to the litany.

Most importantly, we have a legacy of old houses and some of the poorest super output areas—I do not know why they are called that when the statistics are so depressing. The area has some of the worst statistics on the decline of housing and on poverty in the country. In 1980, I lectured in America for the English-Speaking Union, which provided me with a driver to take me
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around Harlem. He would not let me get out of the car to take photographs, fearing an assault, but the burnt-out houses that I saw paralleled, to a degree, what can be seen in the East Marsh area. There is much less of a problem than in Harlem, but burnt-out houses in older areas are a problem, and it is the result of houses getting older and inadequate landlords.

The development of the strategic plan, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes said, is in many ways an excellent exercise, certainly for what it proposes on fire prevention work, training, new gear for flooding and rescue and new platforms. The fire brigade in my area has also done an enormous and successful job in providing free smoke detectors. It no longer gets money from the Government to do that work—it must do so through alternative means—but the work could not be done through cuts, and it must go on.

The strategic plan, which was launched suddenly in December, as other right hon. and hon. Members said, has its virtues. However, there are several reservations. First, the unions, the firemen and local authorities were not involved in its development, which has been going on for more than three years, so it should have been possible to involve the people who deal with fires and the councils that face the problems. Secondly, the proposals are based on risk and the arrival time of the first engine. However, the arrival time of the second engine is crucial, without which firemen would plunge into situations in which they must either wait until a safe number of firefighters arrive, thus risking the lives of the public, or act without waiting for the second engine. The more stations we close, the longer it will take the second engine to arrive, particularly when numerous call-outs are putting a strain on Peaks Lane, but the strategic plan neglects that problem.

The strategic plan was done over three years, but the financial implications and the impact on the number of jobs are not spelled out. It is striking that there are no costings, given that the area got a better settlement than most, as my colleagues have said. We got a 5 per cent. increase in our allocation, and the national average was 3.3 per cent., as my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole said. We got the fifth-highest settlement for a combined fire authority, so the need to make cuts on such a scale has been undercut. The fire authority cannot justify making the cuts in the strategic plan, given the settlement that it received.

The proposed cuts are not paralleled elsewhere. The only station closure I know of is in Cleveland, and two of the proposed closures in Cornwall have actually been reversed. We do not see the justification for making cuts now when Humberside has done better than most. It is a shame that the proportion of Government funding is falling—it has fallen from 80 to 70 per cent. since 1997—and that local authority support is falling as a proportion of local authority spending. That is unfortunate, but we are talking today about a local issue, and my point is that the problem is not as serious in our area, which again undermines the case made in the document.

The proposals increase insecurity in all the areas that we are concerned about, not just Waltham. Clearly, given the demonstration on Saturday, people there feel insecure about the closure of their station, even though
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it is a retained fire station. However, the closure will have an impact on the whole area, because it will affect the arrival time of the second appliance and increase the strain on the Peaks Lane station in Grimsby.

The result of the proposals is a feeling of insecurity, which is now stirring people to action. The consultation ends on 31 March, and as will be clear from the debate, my colleagues and I will be making very strong representations. My plea to the fire authority is, “Now that you’ve got more money than you expected, please think again.”

11.52 am

Mr. Elliot Morley (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) on obtaining the debate. As you can see, Mrs. Humble, all the MPs from the south bank are here as part of a united front, which illustrates how strongly people feel about this issue and how important it is for us to reflect our constituents’ concerns. I want to focus particularly on the threat to Kirton in Lindsey fire station, which, as my hon. Friend said, is one of the stations earmarked for complete closure.

As my hon. Friend has said, we have heard about this issue in various ways. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) said that he heard about it on Radio Humberside, and I heard about it from a constituent who engaged me in conversation on the train back to my constituency, as constituents often do. He was a firefighter, which was helpful because he was very knowledgeable about the issue, and we discussed the ins and outs and the impacts of the proposed closure. I immediately arranged a meeting with the chief fire officer of the Humberside fire authority to express my concerns and to talk to him personally about the justification for the closure of the Kirton in Lindsey fire station.

This is not just about the increased risk to the people of Kirton in Lindsey, although that is, of course, an issue because, whatever changes are introduced, response times will be slower if the community loses its fire station. However, the closure is also an issue for both urban and rural areas in the whole of my constituency. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes said, the number of pumps on the south bank will be reduced from nine to seven, which means a slower response, particularly in terms of back-up from a second pump. That must be taken into account, because the Kirton pump provides back-up in other parts of my constituency and north Lincolnshire.

When I met the chief fire officer, he was at great pains to stress that the proposals were not about cutting the budget, but about responding to independent reports on providing good fire cover for the whole area. He said, as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) noted, that the savings will be ploughed back into the fire service in the form of equipment for dealing with floods, for example. I am sure that such things are desirable, but we must take into account the overall impact of removing these machines.

[Mr. Greg Pope in the Chair]

I am concerned about the maximum 20-minute response time that the fire authority recommends for low-risk areas, because Kirton in Lindsey is on the very
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edge of the area covered by that response time. I am also concerned about the figures that have been used to justify the closure of the Kirton in Lindsey fire station. We have heard about road traffic accidents, and I would add the A15 to the litany of roads that are regarded as very high risk. The A15 has been classified as one of the most dangerous roads in Britain, because of its accident rate. I raised the issue with the chief fire officer, who said that Scunthorpe has a dedicated machine to deal with road traffic accidents, which can get out in an average of 15 minutes. That is fine, if it is correct.

Although there are arguments about availability and about how busy individual fire stations in the Humberside fire authority are, there is no argument about the fact that Scunthorpe is one of the busiest in the whole fire authority area. I therefore return to the point that we must look at the role of the Kirton in Lindsey fire station not only in terms of Kirton in Lindsey, but strategically, in terms of the back-up that the machine there provides as part of overall availability in an area that is full of COMAH sites, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes said. In Scunthorpe, for example, we have the steelworks and a range of other high-risk industries, and that needs to be taken into account.

A number of issues of detail have been raised with me. What, for example, would be the net savings from closing the Kirton in Lindsey fire station? There is quite a large gulf between the FBU’s calculations and those of the fire authority. I have written to the chief fire officer to take up a range of issues that relate to the calculation of costs and times. There are arguments about the availability of the Kirton in Lindsey fire station. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole said, it is not unusual for machines at retained fire stations to be unavailable for parts of the day, which is not surprising given the nature of such fire stations. However, there are arguments about the length of such periods at the Kirton in Lindsey station, and we must compare what the fire authority says about them with what the firefighters say. Those issues require answers, and I have some very serious concerns about them.

My major concern is about the level of risk and fire cover, and the fire authority needs to answer some legitimate points. I share my hon. Friends’ concerns about the overall recommendations on the level of fire cover, and I can certainly confirm the level of concern among members of the public.

The Scunthorpe Telegraph has been running a campaign that has had thousands of responses from people expressing concern about the proposals. As for the consultation, I appreciate the fact that the fire authority has met representatives of North Lincolnshire council and that, at my request, it also sent representatives to hear at first hand the concerns of Kirton in Lindsey town council. That is nature of consultation, but the consultation has clearly thrown up serious issues in relation to the proposals, which call them into question.

12 noon

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