Fire chiefs to explore closer collaboration with Warwickshire

FIRE chiefs in Worcestershire are to spend £75,000 on exploring a controversial ‘collaboration’ with Warwickshire, provoking fears a merger is on the cards.

The cash, drawn from a £400,000 “development reserve”, will pay for “a joint project team” who will investigate a closer working relationship between the two fire services.

It would pay for three seconded officers who would complete their work over the next 12 months. Estimates suggest the project could save Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service (HWFRS) between £2 million and £2.5 million per year, depending on the extent of the collaboration.

The future of the service was discussed during a meeting of the Hereford and Worcester Fire Authority at its HQ in Worcester today. The meeting was attended by more than 40 fire fighters and members of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU).

Fire Authority leaders were hoping the exploratory work could be paid for using a government grant, but a bid by HWFRS was one of 100 and proved unsuccessful. They will now have to meet the cost themselves.

Two amendments to the proposal were defeated, one to delay talks with Warwickshire until after HWFRS knows its budget for 2014/15 and until group leaders have had talks with their opposite numbers in Warwickshire, and another to wait until the authority knows more about future government cuts.

However, the main proposal to push on with the talks about collaboration was passed by 13 votes to nine after a lengthy debate.

Labour councillor Coun Richard Udall, representing St John’s in Worcester, said the £75,000 would be better spent on protecting services and jobs in the fire service. He said: “We oppose any attempt to merge this authority with Warwickshire full stop.

“We should not be going down this road. It’s a disaster waiting to happen. “Let’s look at how we (the two fire services) can collaborate short of a merger.”

He said a merger would leave Herefordshire “a rump colony of the new authority”.

Coun Fran Oborski said spending £75,000 on the discussions was “immoral” and she could not justify it to the electorate. She said: “Hell will freeze over before I vote for a merger.”

Coun Andy Fry said he was happy for HWFRS to sell services to Warwickshire but said a merger would not be of benefit. He would rather the £75,000 was “spent on frontline services”. He said: “It will be a merger. It could even by a takeover by us of the Warwickshire service because their management has always been far poorer.”

But Adrian Hardman, leader of Worcestershire County Council, said: “The £75,000 will be a one-off and annual savings of £2 million to £2.5 million could be made which will happen on a recurring basis, year on year, and would be used to protect frontline services. “I would suggest the councillors who oppose this are imperilling frontline services.”

Coun Derek Prodger, who chaired the meeting, said the talks would be about exploration and investigation and any decisions on a merger would have to come back before the committee. HWFRS has already saved £2.5 million over the last two years and the Fire Authority needs to further reduce spending by £4.7 million by 2016/17

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