Commissioner faces questions over ‘limited progress’ of fire and police collaboration

Police, fire and crime commissioner Zoe Metcalfe Picture: LDRS

A commissioner is being pressed to explain why a high-profile initiative to help solve funding issues for a cash-strapped fire brigade and a police force by fusing some of their back office functions has made “limited progress” since being launched four years ago.

North Yorkshire and York’s Police, Fire and Crime Panel, which is charged with holding commissioner Zoe Metcalfe to account, has urged her to review the Enable collaboration, which it was announced in February 2019 would be headed by an officer on a salary of up to £115,000.

A meeting of the watchdog heard Ms Metcalfe asked to provide evidence to the panel as soon as possible about the potential savings which could be used to help get the fire service on financial firmer ground following years of under-funding as well as boosting the police force.

In 2019, Julia Mulligan the area’s first commissioner, said Enable would “allow us to make savings that can be reinvested into frontline services to enhance public safety; protecting the vulnerable, reducing harm, and making our communities stronger and safer”.

She said the managing director would help control a cost-cutting plan to combine back office workers in departments including Human Resources, IT, and finance.

However, in March this year, Ms Metcalfe acknowledged concerns of government inspectors over “collaboration activity with the fire service being effective and providing value for money” and said Covid-19 had disrupted progress.

In a meeting at County Hall in Northalleton this week the panel’s deputy chair, Councillor Peter Wilkinson, highlighted how Mrs Mulligan, had used “efficiencies and savings that were to be delivered” from the initiative to justify taking over governance of fire service from councillors.

Mrs Mulligan’s move triggered a rift between many North Yorkshire councillors and the commissioner, with some arguing governance of both services was too big a task for one individual.

Coun Wilkinson said despite the appointment of a managing director to drive Enable forward, “after three years there seems to have been limited progress”.

Requesting the commissioner outline quantifiable outcomes of Enable, Coun Wilkinson said he was seeking reassurances the commissioner had considered which areas of the services where collaboration would prove useful.

He said: “I am looking for that the reviews have actually been undertaken and that decisions have been taken on the back of that and that savings can be generated. I think the money can be used elsewhere to deliver outstanding services to our communities.

“That was the claim that the original commissioner made and over that period we haven’t seen the progress that all of us hoped around that.

“There was promises that you have inherited from a predecessor that this was going to solve some of the funding issues that you’ve certainly had in the fire service.”

Coun Wilkinson said concerns had been raised by a suggestion in a report by the commissioner that senior police officers did not have sufficient oversight of back office services and questioned if that was the reason for the lack of progress.

The meeting was told there had been “fresh senior appointments within the collaboration”, demonstrating the commissioner’s commitment to finding efficiencies, but it was expected any collaboration between the services would now “look different in its design features”.

Ms Metcalfe, who in March announced her ambition to be the Conservative candidate to become North Yorkshire and York’s first elected mayor, said Enable had seen “an awful lot of work going to behind the scenes”, but that she was “not ideological” about the initiative.

She added officers were preparing business cases for areas there was potential to collaborate on.

Ms Metcalfe added: “I am a little bit different to previous commissioners in that I believe collaboration should happen when it’s efficient and effective, not at all costs, and not at detriment to the fire service and the force as well. The back room function is the engine house. It has got to work for both businesses.

“When it was put in place I don’t believe it was embedded or funded correctly for it to be a success.”