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Posted by: County Fire Officer Steve McGuirk

People will have seen all the media stuff in recent days about what the local government financial settlement announced last Monday means for their local council. Across Greater Manchester it has been particularly bad with local MP's demanding a meeting with the Chancellor to express their anger.

Of course the media is dominated by the 'big numbers' - how many job losses there will be and which services will be cut -  but rarely mentions the fire and rescue service.

But we are part of that settlement and for us it hasn't been very good news at all.

(I have been accused of being a bit gloomy with my blog - actually I am not at all gloomy - on the contrary - but I am afraid the issues consuming most of my time at the moment are the most challenging ones - and inevitably can sound a bit 'gloomy')

But it's important to set out what was said before our settlement and - importantly - what's happened?

What was said?

It was said that fire and rescue cuts would be backloaded to allow the preparation for the big changes that will be necessary; so years 3 and 4 would be when the big changes happened.

What's happened?

Well, instead of the 4 year settlement promised the government has in fact given us figures for just 2 years so we still don't really yet know whether it has been backloaded.  However, given that the overall cut for fire is 7%, it appears the government have been true to their word at a national level and if the maths stack up - then there is another big cut to come in a year or two.  There are a couple of very big 'buts' though.

One is - but at the same time they have changed the funding formula and the new (reduced) pot of money available is being 'divvied' up in very different ways.  For GMFRS the cut in the first two years is in fact over 12% - nearer 9 million - which is worse than we expected.  What is also concerning is the other 'but' - the backloading question.

Because it would appear from this that instead of the overall 25% cut we had anticipated in GMFRS, over that 4 year period it will likely be over 30%.

What else was said?

There has been considerable talk that all of this should be possible without affecting 'frontline services'.

So what's happened?

Of course we have and will do all we can to protect the 'front line', though in our case it's really quite impossible to differentiate between front line and 'something else'.  The term  'back office' is now common parlance to describe everything other than the front line - but  means all things to all people; and is presented almost as a pot of gold at the end of a magical rainbow we can somehow dip in to when times get hard. 

We have done an enormous amount of work here, though, and we believe we will be able to save around 5% of our budget over the 4 year period.  But this isn't easy money - there will be big changes - and it will also mean job losses of course - and we have been doing this for years. The soon to be abolished Audit Commission did a report a couple of years ago on efficiency in the fire service and identified that Greater Manchester had saved more than any other service over the last few years.

But back office efficiencies don't find even half of the money we have to find.

And it's worth making this point from the outset because somewhere down the line we will inevitably be faced with the accusation that if we can't find all the money through 'efficiencies' and back office - then it must be down to incompetent management.

So it is inevitable now that there must be changes at 'the front line' - and possibly some very significant changes.
This isn't being alarmist at all - quite the reverse.  In fact many of the changes possible are only possible because of the excellent safety and prevention work we have done over the last few years. So we have an excellent track record of making changes that work. And I am confident we can also reorganise the front line to be more efficient through different rostering arrangements and so on.

But the changed picture does require us to reflect on our desire to retain all our appliances and stations.  I must stress it's far too early to say what exactly this means and raise concerns that it requires a wholesale re-think.  It doesn't - and our plans are pretty much absolutely where they need to be - which in many ways is very reassuring (rather than gloomy - I think we have been realistic rather than hopefully optimistic). 

But we undoubtedly face some tough times ahead and it would be foolhardy to allow the changed - and worse - situation unfolding pass as if it will have no impact. 

Last update: 13/06/2011 09:13:37
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