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'13,000 residents ignored' as changes to night time fire cover in Surrey agreed

'13,000 residents ignored' as changes to night time fire cover in Surrey agreed

Published by Local Democracy Reporter Rebecca Curley at 6:43pm 8th October 2019.

The views of more than 13,000 residents opposing changes to night time cover at fire stations across Surrey have been ignored, councillors were told. 

Lee Belsten, secretary of Surrey Fire Brigades Union (FBU), said firefighters, their families and residents in the county were “dismayed” their call that proposed changes to night cover be abolished had been “dismissed”.

Strike action by firefighters has not been ruled out after trade dispute talks between the FBU and Surrey County Council failed to address concerns. 

In a passionate speech at Surrey County Hall on Tuesday, Mr Belsten presented the petition signed by 13,048 people calling for proposals for Surrey County Council to scrap plans to leave seven fire appliances un-crewed at night.

This is said to be the second largest petition presented to the county council in recent times. A petition in 2011 to scrap on-street parking charges generated more than 26,000 signatures. 

Because the fire petition went over the 10,000-signature mark, it was allowed to be debated in the chamber. 

The plans form part of the Making Surrey Safer transformation strategy for Surrey Fire and Rescue Service. 

Fire and council chiefs say the changes will allow staff to focus more on prevention of fire, which will reduce the amount of risk.

The changes will boost firefighter numbers as well as include investment in community safety. 

Under the plans the number of fire engines available at night time will be reduced from 30 to 23 and changes will be made to how stations are crewed in Banstead, Camberley, Egham, Fordbridge, Guildford, Haslemere, Painshill, Walton and Woking. 

This includes introducing day crew only at some stations and swapping whole time firefighters for on-call cover at night at others. 

Mr Belsten questioned how reducing the resources would help firefighters carry out their jobs when he said the service is already unable to meet response time targets because it is already insufficiently resourced. 

Addressing councillors in the chamber, he said: “Surrey cannot meet and therefore cannot retain the standards with the resources it has currently got. So it’s absolutely preposterous any response standard will improve and be better than what is currently demonstrated with seven less fire engines that are crewed 24/7, 365.”

He said if the changes to SFRS were not “financially driven” then “would it not be the safest option” if the fire service “demonstrated its effectiveness first and foremost” then councillors and fire chiefs could scrutinise how it can be changed and transformed. 

Mr Belsten added: “This downgrade of frontline fire cover is not safe and will cause significant suffering for all.”

His views were echoed by opposition councillors ahead of a vote that confirmed the proposals in the Making Surrey Safer plan will go ahead. 

Cllr Robert Evans asked: “How can we make Surrey safer if we are reducing fire cover? I have come across nobody in Surrey who wants the number of fire appliances reduced and who believes it should be part-time cover rather than full-time.”

Cllr Stephen Spence said he was concerned reducing the night cover would mean numbers needed for firefighters to be able to enter burning buildings safely would not be met. 

Responding to Mr Belsten’s comments, Cllr Denise Turner-Stewart, cabinet member for community safety, fire and resilience, said the plan had been reviewed by experts and that the changes were needed due to increase in traffic on roads, flooding issues and a 34% rise of elderly people by 2030.

She said: “Since 2016 the risks across Surrey have changed significantly.”

Surrey County Council leader Cllr Tim Oliver said later in the meeting that the Making Surrey Safer plan will make Surrey Fire and Rescue Service “fit for the future”. 

Councillors voted to accept the decision by cabinet members to approve the Making Surrey Safer Plan – 46 votes for,  11 against and five abstained. 

In a comment after the meeting, Mr Belsten said: “This has been a shameful stitch-up from 46 councillors who have voted to ignore the public’s concerns. 

“It’s clear that these cuts will make residents less safe. A huge majority of respondents to the consultation could see that, as could the 13,000 residents who have signed this petition.

“Surrey County Council may today have voted to override the overwhelming view of the community, but their firefighters will not give in. We’ll fight these cuts to the bitter end.”

The Fire Brigades Union is now going to consider balloting its members for industrial action under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.

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