Chris Marshall: Budget cuts threaten firefighting

Up until very recently the newly formed Scottish fire service has stayed free of controversy. Picture: TSPL
Up until very recently the newly formed Scottish fire service has stayed free of controversy. Picture: TSPL
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MUCH has been written about the travails of Scotland’s national police force since its creation on 1 April 2013.

While Police Scotland’s handling of controversies such as stop-search and armed officers has not helped its cause, it’s fair to say the force has been subject to a level of scrutiny not visited on the eight regional forces it replaced.

The same cannot be said of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS).

Formed at the same time as Police Scotland, the fire service has so far remained relatively controversy-free.

But it has now emerged there are real concerns within the SFRS about the service it delivers amid budget tightening. In a submission to the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee, the fire service warned that a 
£50 million funding gap may yet cause it to make cuts to its frontline.

Like Police Scotland, it is seeing rising staff costs at the same time as its budget is cut by the Scottish Government.

Appearing before the justice committee yesterday, Pat Watters, chair of the SFRS board, said the fire service had been dealt a further blow in the shape of an annual £10m VAT bill.

Despite pleading with the Treasury to allow the service to be allowed a VAT exemption enjoyed by other national bodies, it continues to spend the equivalent of 350 firefighters’ salaries on the tax.

The money is sorely needed, according to those with real fears about the service’s frontline.

Stephen Thomson, Scottish secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), told MSPs he was “extremely concerned” about cuts to the fire service’s budget. Mr Thomson said it was already a daily occurrence that fire engines were not available due to insufficient levels of staff to crew them.

He warned that continued budget pressures would lead to cuts to frontline staff and the roles carried out by the service.

There are currently 3,890 “whole-time” firefighters across Scotland, but the service plans to reduce that to a target of 3,709.

There are also concerns about retained firefighters, who currently cover around 90 per cent of the country.

Chief officer Alasdair Hay said the system of retained firefighters had been set up for the 1950s and was now badly out of date and needing refreshed.

All in all, Scotland’s national fire service is facing some very real and pressing challenges.

While there’s much to commend in the creation of Scotland’s single police and fire services, it’s clearly still a work in progress.

With huge budgetary challenges around the corner, it may be years before we can truly judge whether the process has been a success or not.