Calls to abandon cuts to fire service’s prevention work as warning lives will be lost

Labour county councillor Michael Jones spoke against the cuts
Labour county councillor Michael Jones spoke against the cuts

Plans to cut £400,000 from the West Sussex fire service budget should be abandoned or delayed, a council committee has advised.

The fire service operation budget is one of many to be targeted in the county council’s fight to reduce its spending by £145m over the next four years.

The original plan was to cut £600,000 – £200,000 from the technical rescue unit and £400,000 of intervention and prevention work such as electric blanket testing and the Save Drive Stay Alive programme.

But an out-of-the-blue letter from the Home Office threw a spoke in the wheel – and gave the council a whole new headache – when it announced the government was to drop a £450,000 technical rescue grant from April 2020.

The loss of this grant came on top of the £145m in government funding taken from West Sussex since 2011.

At a meeting of the environment, communities and fire select committee on Monday members were told that, because of the letter, the proposal to cut £200,000 from the technical rescue budget had been dropped for now.

The other £400,000, though, was still lined up for the chop.

The news led to questions, not least of which came from Simon Oakley (Con, Chichester East) who asked where the required £200,000 of savings would come from if not from the fire service budget.

There were also concerns about the safety consequences, particularly the loss of Save Drive Stay Alive, which educates young drivers about road safety.

Michael Jones (Lab, Southgate & Gossops Green) said: “If these savings are supported lives will be lost in fires and road accidents, people will suffer injuries from horrific burns and be cut out from crashed cars that would not have occurred if this work had been going on.”

Describing the council’s budget challenges as ‘unprecedented’, Nicola Bulbeck, executive director for communities and public protection, told members the fire service cuts could safely be made.

It was not a view shared by the Fire Brigades Union.

A letter to the committee said the proposed cuts would ‘see the loss of important safety and prevention initiatives which have undoubtedly saved lives’.

Last year, West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service underwent its first visit from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate in 13 years.

The outcome of the inspection is not expected until May.

Following a recommendation from Mr Jones, the committee agreed to ask for the proposed cuts to either be delayed until that report was received – or to be abandoned completely.

The final decision will be made by Debbie Kennard, cabinet member for safer, stronger communities.