Efficiency drive sparks fears over fire centre's future

THE future of the national fire training college at Gullane has been thrown into question after being identified for possible closure as part of a Government efficiency drive.

The independent Howat report has recommended the college should close and merge with the police college at Tulliallan in Fife, it has emerged.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has refused to rule out the idea after being quizzed about it in the Scottish Parliament.

But today East Lothian MSP Iain Gray called on the Government to end the uncertainty and reject the recommendation.

And union leaders warned any new establishment would have to meet the high standard of facilities provided at the existing college.

The Scottish Fire Services College has been in Gullane since 1953. It provides initial training for all recruits in the Scottish fire and rescue service and other specialist training.

But the Howat report, commissioned by the last Scottish Executive but only published since the election, argued savings could be made by merging it with the police training college.

It said: "We see scope to rationalise on one site (Tulliallan), part funded by a potentially significant capital receipt from disposal of the Fire College at Gullane.

"The Scottish Ambulance College at Peebles and the Scottish Prison Service College at Polmont should also be considered in any rationalisation to create a protective services training campus.

"Investment in infrastructure could release long-term savings and produce more effective working. Merging budgets provides opportunities for savings and we suggest a target saving of ten per cent (1.7 million)."

Mr Gray raised the future of the fire college in the parliament, asking the Justice Secretary for an assurance that he would not pursue the Howat report's recommendation about its closure.

Mr MacAskill praised the "excellent service and facilities at Gullane". He added: "The Government is reviewing fire service and police issues, therefore it would be wrong of me to make a specific commitment."

Mr Gray said he had since spoken to senior management at the college who believed they had an important role to play in future training. He said: "I don't know why the minister cannot just rule out closure.

"They have said this is an important report informing their view of efficiencies in Government, but they have already ruled out one recommendation, the mutualisation of Scottish Water."

He said the fire college had become "a bit of an institution in East Lothian" and its closure would create major uncertainty over a large site in the centre of Gullane.

"I want to know whether this is a proposal the Government is considering. There is some prestige attached to having such a major institution for such an important service in East Lothian.

"Were it to be closed down and the site disposed of that would raise a lot of questions about what happened to the site."

Gavin Barrie, regional treasurer of the Fire Brigades Union Scotland, said: "Gullane is an excellent facility and it has been consistently upgraded. We would have to look very carefully at anything that was being proposed to replace it to ensure it would match or exceed what is there.

"Too often in the past what are described as efficiencies and modernisation have just meant a cut in services."