North Yorkshire’s fire service faces a £2.5 million financial black hole over the next four years, and bosses have warned cuts will almost certainly hit firefighters and front-line services.
Cash problems facing the service are “very significant”, according to finance chief Gary Fielding, who spoke at a meeting of the county’s fire authority on Wednesday.
And assistant chief fire officer Owen Hayward said the savings they need to make by 2020 are equivalent to 40 to 45 full time firefighters, while the longer term £2.5 million figure would equal 60 firefighters – although they are not planning to save the money like that.
A medium term financial plan, which runs until 2022/23, has a shortfall of £2.5 million, Mr Fielding told councillors on the authority, and with almost two-thirds of the budget going on firefighting staff it will be “almost impossible” to avoid hitting that area when trying to balance the books.
The same meeting saw a fiery exchange between Police Commissioner Julia Mulligan – who has just got the Home Secretary’s permission to take over the fire service – and authority vice-chairman Cllr Tony Richardson.
Mrs Mulligan said that given the challenge facing the fire service, it was important to end uncertainty over its future governance.
She said she wanted to plead “on behalf of the service”, and urged councillors to “make a sensible decision” about launching a court fight against the decision.
Councillors on the authority voted against launching a Judicial Review in a private session later, but Cllr Richardson hit back at Mrs Mulligan’s calls.
He said: “We will decide what to do, and that is our right.
“We are quite aware of the issues and that is for us. You have made your opinion clear.”
After the meeting, Cllr Richardson said he was disappointed at the decision over the judicial review.
He added that York councillors would have to think carefully about how to fight for the city’s services under future savings plans.
On the budget troubles, Mr Fielding said the fire service had a history of dealing with austerity but now needs to do more.
Frontline service reduction are the “last resort” for saving money, Mr Fielding’s report to the authority said, but they cannot be ruled out if other savings don’t deliver.
He also said that while they can push for more powers over raising money through council tax, they still need to make plans to save cash in case those pleas aren’t successful.
Chief Fire Officer Nigel Hutchinson backed his calls not to rely on getting extra funding, adding: “I would caution against putting all our eggs in that basket, I think it would be very risky if we were to do that and it didn’t prove successful. They should look at a “least worst option” for cuts instead of “hacking away at the service”.
As part of savings plans, papers show fire bosses are planning to let full-time firefighters retire without replacements, and rely more heavily on temporary workers.
Up to 42 firefighters could retire before the end of 2020 – almost 15 per cent of North Yorkshire’s total. Fire chiefs don’t believe it would be fair or sensible to fill those positions when redundancies could be coming, so instead they plan to rely on overtime and retained – or part-time – staff to fill the gaps.
In another move, they are also cancelling new build projects and delaying capital projects in Ripon, Northallerton and Scarborough.
He admitted that using retained firefighters to cover the gaps is like “robbing Peter to pay Paul”, but went on to say that even without the financial problems he would be pushing to “rebalance” the service as it currently has more risk in some parts of the county and more firefighters and resources in others.
The Fire Brigade Union’s Steve Howley said they would be fighting any reductions in fire cover, saying the service was already “running the bare minimum”. Even this week two large incidents near Selby had “stripped fire cover” across the county, he added, and although budget cuts for whole time firefighters can save money they also “bring a world of pain”.