Scottish fire service faces frontline cuts

SCOTLAND’S fire service will have to consider frontline cuts as it seeks to address a £50 million funding gap, it has emerged.

The Fire Brigade Union claimed frontline services were already being hit by budget restraints. Picture: John Devlin

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service said it would be forced to look at its “frontline delivery model” to help address an 11 per cent cut in its funding alongside a 6 per cent rise in costs. The information emerged in a submission to the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee ahead of an appearance by the service’s chief officer, Alasdair Hay, today.

The national fire service was created alongside Police Scotland in April 2013 following the merger of the country’s regional fire brigades.

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In a document sent to MSPs, the fire service said funding had fallen by £31.5m in cash terms since 2012-13, while costs had risen by £16.7m mainly due to VAT and pay inflation. The service said it had been left with a funding gap of £48.2m.

The submission states: “It is recognised that funding pressures will intensify and work has been undertaken to project future costs and savings up to 2019-20 across all areas.

“The majority of material savings that can be achieved from managerial and back-office costs have been identified and further savings may require the service to give consideration to its frontline delivery model.

“The SFRS will, of course, continue to place community and firefighter safety at the forefront of any decisions made.”

The service said it had commissioned a review of emergency cover arrangements which would ensure a long-term strategy taking into account “future financial constraints”.

And it said a reorganisation of its strategic leadership team would provide uniform access across Scotland to assets including water rescue, rope rescue and high-reach vehicles.

But the Fire Brigade Union (FBU) said the frontline was already being hit, with fire engines being put out of service due to a lack of firefighters to crew them. The FBU said: “We recognise that backroom functions being brought together have provided savings through a reduction in duplication. Similarly, having a single senior management tier, as opposed to eight, has provided efficiency savings.

“However, the FBU believe the reduction in the number of frontline posts is now having an impact on frontline delivery.”

According to the FBU, 290 firefighters left the service in the first year of its operation. The union said that figure will have increased in recent months.

Scottish Labour justice spokesman Hugh Henry said: “Cuts to frontline services in the fire service could put lives at risk. The SNP government caused a VAT liability between £4m and £10m which the Treasury confirms could have been avoided.”

Tory justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell added: “With all the controversy over the creation of Police Scotland, the struggles being faced by the fire service have gone largely unnoticed. That needs to change.”

While highlighting its response to major incidents such as the Clutha helicopter tragedy and the Glasgow School of Art fire, the fire service said its focus was “firmly on prevention”.

Mr Hay is expected to give evidence to the justice committee today alongside Steven Torrie, HM Chief Inspector of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. In his submission to the committee, Mr Torrie said there was “every reason to believe” the fire service would face “ongoing funding constraints for a number of years”.

He said: “Efficiencies to be gained by a back-office rationalisation have largely been achieved and further significant cuts to the administrative and support cadre of the service will be difficult to attain.

“As an inspectorate we will be keen to monitor how the service deals with times of financial restraint without compromising service delivery.”

Earlier this month, Chief Constable Sir Stephen House warned Police Scotland may be forced to make cuts to frontline policing as it attempts to balance its budget. Scotland’s single police force aims to achieve savings of £1.1 billion by 2026.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The creation of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service was the biggest public sector reform in a generation, and was absolutely vital to sustain the service that Scotland’s communities depend on.

“Moving to a single service is safeguarding frontline firefighters in Scotland from UK Government budget cut.

“The Scottish Government will continue to argue for a fair deal for Scotland’s fire service, which is the only authority of its kind in the UK unable to recover VAT and is liable to an annual cost of around £10 million.

“Police Scotland is similarly disadvantaged, and is liable for an annual cost of around £23 million. That is money that could and should be spent on frontline services.”