West Sussex Labour councillors have criticised today’s announcement by Sussex Tory Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne that following a study that has taken months, created uncertainty and cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of pounds, her investigation to take over the running and control of both the West Sussex and East Sussex Fire Services will not proceed.
In addition, they are concerned about the continued uncertainty for the Fire Services as a result of the PCC saying she will “revisit” the decision in only two years’ time.
- Barely a fortnight after the last quarterly meeting of the Sussex Police and Crime Panel, where she could have explained her business case for taking over the Fire and Rescue Services to elected representatives, dampened expectations and given the decision some democratic accountability, the Tory PCC Katy Bourne instead delayed announcing this decision until just before councillors begin the summer recess for meetings.
- Information obtained from the last Police and Crime Panel meeting by Labour recently revealed the preparation of the business case cost so much, it meant increasing the Sussex PCC’s office budget by 12% during the past year to cover the costs of it, despite the move to take the local Fire and Rescue Services being opposed from the outset by councillors right across East and West Sussex Fire Authorities.
- Figures disclosed from cash-strapped West Sussex County Council have also revealed that they have been forced to spend over £100,000 in providing the information they were required to under the legal duty to comply with the PCC’s requests, which they won’t be getting back off the Commissioner or the Tory Government. East Sussex Fire Authority will also have been put in a similar position.
- The PCC has pushed this investigation forward in the face of opposition from both West Sussex County Council who directly runs the West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, and by the East Sussex Fire Authority, who both considered it more appropriate and better for local accountability that the service remained either directly or indirectly under local councillors’ control.
- In spite of this expense incurred with little to no evidence produced of any benefit to the local fire authorities concerned, the PCC then plunges the future of the Services into continued uncertainty by indicating she will “revisit” the Governance decision in two years’ time.
Labour West Sussex County Councillor and member of the Sussex Police and Crime Panel Michael Jones (Lab, Southgate and Gossops Green) condemned today’s move by the PCC:
“Katy Bourne has spent a fortune and cost our local councils money they could not easily afford on a project which the councils told her to begin with was not the right future for our Fire and Rescue Services in Sussex.
“This was always an exercise in trying to justify the role of PCCs in the first place, by the Tory Government. It should come as no surprise that Mrs Bourne went along with it, as she has always gone along with the Government, in their desire to slash Police numbers and close stations across Sussex.
“I’m relieved that the Fire Authorities will stay in local council control for now. To have taken over the Sussex Fire and Rescue Services would have just been empire building by the PCC. The work of the Police and Fire Service is not closely related. Most of each service’s work does not involve another emergency service. When they do meet up at the same emergencies they are carrying out different functions that require different training, equipment, vehicles and procedures.
“It’s also essential for firefighter safety that the Fire and Rescue Service is seen as independent from the police. If not, then firefighters will face the same risks as the police in areas of tension or conflict.
“It may only be dressing up the fact that the PCC has spent so much and is now not going to do anything, but it is wrong for her to leave a question mark hanging over the future running of our Fire Services. It is the worst of both worlds. How can they plan ahead when they don’t know even the fundamentals like who is going to be in charge?
“Not only would a future PCC takeover leave our Fire and Rescue Services across Sussex at the mercy of just one individual with a track record of cutting back public services ruthlessly, with concerning implications for public safety, I know it will leave West Sussex County Council in particular organisational and budget difficulties. It feels like a mess.”