Fire service chiefs' privatisation fears
The Government has outlined plans to reform fire brigades that could be the "first step" towards privatisation, critics have warned.
Ministers have drawn up plans to allow fire services to outsource everything they do, including responding to 999 calls.
It follows Cleveland Fire Brigade's announcement that it plans to become a "mutual" – a business owned and led by employees similar to the partnership model popularised by department store John Lewis.
While the Government says the law needs to be changed to allow Cleveland's plans to go ahead, the proposals appear to go much further and open the door to a wide range of organisations taking over fire services.
The national Chief Fire Officers Association cautioned that the plans could "quickly become the first step towards privatisation". Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service and Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service provide cover in the Westcountry.
In a letter setting out the proposals to a Commons committee, Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis said: "Fire and rescue authorities should be able to adopt alternative models for the delivery, under contract, for some or all of their services by a suitable alternative provider, eg a mutual, social enterprise or other appointed contractor."
The Chief Fire Officers Association welcomed the proposals to give fire services "greater freedom and flexibility".
But it continued: "We have enduring concerns that any such model can quickly become the first step towards privatisation.
"We firmly believe that the emergency response role of the fire and rescue service should always remain as a public provided service and while there are some elements of the business that could be contracted out to other providers or wholly delivered by the private sector, this should not include the emergency response role, which should be immediately available and accessible to anyone."
Mr Lewis's letter to the Commons Regulatory Reform Committee stated that the proposed change would allow fire brigades to contract out services to "a suitable provider, including a public service mutual" – but not excluding other organisations.
Councillor Lance Kennedy, Cornwall Council portfolio holder for community safety and public protection, who effectively oversees Cornwall Fire Service, reckoned there would be "no great appetite" for the proposal in the far South West.
He said: "There should never be a compromise of the safety of residents of Cornwall.
"My initial reaction would be that I would have no great appetite to go down that road."