Labour Press Release: Conservative councillors on the Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes Fire Authority have been forced into a humiliating 7.45% council tax rise and have been told to improve by a government inspector.
The Buckinghamshire Fire Authority, which is a combination of councillors from Milton Keynes and Buckinghamshire with a large Conservative majority, had been forced to ask central government to allow them an inflation busting tax rise - having previously been warned that unless the extra funding could be agreed, the service faced more station closures and cuts.
The financially strapped authority, that has low staffing levels already in order to make ends meet, has been using reserves and cutting back on essentials such as fire station maintenance to balance the books in recent years.
It has also chosen to close two fire stations in Milton Keynes - Great Holm and Bletchley - and merge them into one new station to save money.
The full fire authority meeting, held in Aylesbury on Wednesday morning, heard how a mixture of central government cuts and the decision by Conservative councillors to cut the fire precept in 2015, against officer advice and opposed by the Labour and Liberal Democrat groups, had left the authority with little choice but to accept the massive tax hike for next year unless councillors wanted to see fire services cut.
The tax rise was agreed at the same meeting in which councillors heard from a government inspector that the service needs to improve. Matthew Parr, Her Majesty’s Inspector for Fire Services, told the meeting that while emergency response standards are currently being met, the fire service in Buckinghamshire was heavily reliant on voluntary overtime to reach safe staffing levels. He also told the meeting that the service was operating “ghost” stations that are intended to be operational but are rarely, if ever, staffed. The inspectors’ report criticised the under resourcing of fire prevention work across the authority area.
Cllr Emily Darlington, Deputy Leader of the Labour Group and fire authority member, said:
“The people of Milton Keynes are now being asked to pay the price for years of political incompetence and mismanagement by the Conservatives on the fire authority. A huge tax hike and a requirement to improve is a bad day for the fire service in Bucks and Milton Keynes. It again highlights the Conservatives as the high tax party.”
“MK has already seen the price of mismanagement with two fire stations being merged into one. Yet there was a clear prospect of more stations having to close unless this extra funding through a tax increase was agreed. However, to have allowed the situation to get this bad in the first place is really shocking.
“We heard from Her Majesty’s Inspector that the service needs to improve and how precarious fire cover across MK and Bucks can be. It’s is reliant on firefighter goodwill and voluntary overtime to reach safe staffing levels. It’s was shocking to hear how the service is operating ‘ghost’ stations that are ‘open’ but, in reality, never manned as they should be.”
Cllr Peter Marland, Leader of MK Council and fire authority member, said:
“The position the fire authority finds itself in is concerning. Faced with the real prospect of more cuts and a threadbare service, there was little choice but to agree the extra funding, but it’s yet another tax increase by the Conservatives on MK residents.
“The inspector’s report vindicates what the Labour Party has been saying about fire services in Milton Keynes for some time. The model Bucks Fire use is far too risky. We want to see the extra funding used to ensure a return to proper staffing levels and a more robust type of operational model before something awful happens.
“I’d like to hope that the Conservative authority, which now has a new Chairperson, can accept mistakes have been made, take responsibility and see that things need to improve. There are signs that the new leadership is more willing to listen and work together, and I appreciate that, but currently the service is in a precarious place and more needs to be done to change that.”