Scottish fire service faces £42.7m black hole

SCOTLAND’s new fire service is facing a new financial black hole of £42.7 million by the end of the decade – equivalent to the cost of more than 1,000 firefighters, a public spending watchdog has warned.

The new service, formed two years ago, is making savings  but not fast enough. Picture: John Devlin
The new service, formed two years ago, is making savings  but not fast enough. Picture: John Devlin

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) was controversially merged from eight regional services by the SNP government in 2013, with ministers stating the shake-up would save the public purse hundreds of millions of pounds.

However, Audit Scotland has identified a new £42.7m funding gap facing the service on top of a £48.2m black hole revealed to MSPs last month.

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Audit Scotland, in a new report today, states that the SFRS achieved £16m of savings in its first year and is on track to exceed expected savings of £328m by 2027/28.

However, it said: “As a result of future cost pressures and likely reductions in funding, we estimate a potential funding gap of £42.7m in 2019/20.”

The £42.7m as identified by Audit Scotland covers the four years up until 2020 and comes on top of the £48.2m shortfall identified at Holyrood’s justice committee by the service’s chief officer, Alasdair Hay, for the three-year period up to 2016.

Audit Scotland said nearly 80 per cent, or £207m, of the SFRS’s budgeted gross expenditure goes on funding its 8,315 staff, including nearly 4,000 full-time and 3,000 retained firefighters.

However, Fire Brigades Union (FBU) Scottish secretary Stephen Thomson said frontline services were facing a “continued onslaught” of cuts and warned that some of Scotland’s fire engines could be lost, with a damaging impact on call-out times.

He said: “We are obviously very concerned that it will hit the frontline in terms of firefighter reductions.

“There’s a continued onslaught of cuts that will inevitably have a detrimental effect on the number of fire engines we have in Scotland and their ability to turn up at call-outs.”

Labour’s justice spokesman Hugh Henry warned that the £42.7m funding gap could lead to cuts to civilian staff, which he said had affected the recently merged Police Scotland, and would eventually lead to reductions in firefighter numbers.

He said: “It could lead to problems with frontline services and firefighters, at some point, could be hit by a share of these cuts.”

Community safety minister, Paul Wheelhouse, said: “The service is already in the process of developing its long-term financial strategy and a number of important underpinning strategies that will set out how SFRS plan to manage their finances.”