Sudbury will keep its second fire engine after a backtrack over £35,000 cuts to the town’s fire service amid huge public opposition.
The proposed removal of the second appliance to be replaced with an unspecified rapid response vehicle (RRV) has been scrapped by Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) after finding no clear benefit to the move when weighed against the costs.
Fire chiefs admitted that the strength of public feeling against the cuts helped secure the town’s second fire engine.
But a number of other cuts of the county’s service have remained, including the removal of engines in both Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich, as SFRS looks to save £1.3 million from its budget.
“We still think the county council’s cuts to the fire service go far too far - and that will have an effect on the safety of Sudbury as well as the whole of the rest of the County,” said Sandy Martin, leader of the Suffolk County Council Labour Group.
“But we take our hats off to the people of Sudbury who have managed to force the county Conservatives to drop their plans to remove Sudbury’s second fire engine.”
With the proposal changes in Sudbury and other stations, the fire service will be left looking for a further £310,000 savings, but Matthew Hicks, Suffolk county council cabinet member for environment and public protection, insisted this would not be found by further cuts to fire engines or stations.
Asked why the proposal to scrap the second fire engine was considered when it brought relatively little financial gain, Mark Hardingham, chief fire officer for SFRS, said: “I think when the proposals were initially put together that if the public had come back and said ‘I agree with them all’ then we could have implemented them. I was absolutely confident of them.
“It is right that the public should have their say. Professionally I believe it would have still provided a good level of cover but we have to take into account the views of the public and other stakeholders.
“We can now provide a really good fire service and still save £1 million.”
Both Mr Hardingham and Mr Hicks said the changes proved the consultation process worked and councillors were listening,
“It has been a fascinating consultation all the way through,” said Mr Hardingham.
“When we first put this together people would say we had already made our minds up and Matthew would insist this wasn’t the case.
“The initial proposals were just the start of it.
“We take all the information that comes in and it gives us an opportunity to think about how we can do things differently. In some cases no, but in two cases proposals have been removed and the remaining ones have been tweaked to improve things.”
Mr Hicks added: “From the very start I have said this is a genuine consultation and we will be looking at all the feedback, this is a demonstration on where we picked up on that.
“I think this is really positive. We have been looking at the proposals and we have been listening.”
Having seen cuts in Sudbury previously placed on a ‘b list’ and originally being recommended for cuts this time round, questions will remain over the future of Sudbury’s second engine.
Mr Hicks accepted there could no be guarantees on the future of any engine or station in the county, but insisted if the new proposals were agreed to by full cabinet on May 17, there would be no further cuts to engines or stations until after 2018.
“Lets be realistic, we don’t know where we will be going forward. There are all sorts of changes.”
Mentioning increased involvement from central Government and the possibility of mayoral control if planned devolution takes place, Mr Hicks added: “I don’t want to go a long, long way ahead as we don’t were we will be.”
The changes in Sudbury come after 4,090 ‘unofficial’ questionnaires were filled in by those opposed to the Sudbury cuts.
With the rumoured loss of the town’s second fire engine, the Free Press began a campaign in October against the cuts, backed by councillors, former and serving firefighters and survivors of the devastating town centre fire in September.
Sudbury and Cornard Against Fire Cuts continued campaigning against the cuts when plans to replace the engine with an unspecified RRV were revealed.
The group collected thousands of responses from residents and business owners.
Much of the feedback from these opponents included the fire in September being used as evidence of the need for two engines in an area furthest from any full-time fire station in the county.
South Suffolk’s numerous historic buildings, the ever-increasing population and problems with on-call cover in other nearby village stations, were all highlighted as reasons to keep two engines in the town.
The lack of specification and capability of the proposed RRV was also questioned.
The report on the proposals for the cabinet meeting on May 17, stated: “The rationale for the Sudbury recommendation is to support the provision of resilience to surrounding on-call fire engines and in particular to recognise that the proposal is the one that was located the greatest distance from the nearest full time crewed fire engine, with the associated resilience and capability this facility provides.
“The 999 call volumes at Sudbury are amongst the highest of Suffolk’s on-call fire stations, this profile is expected to remain and the station will continue to provide hazardous material incident support to surrounding fire stations.
“Whilst some respondents supported the principle of the proposed vehicle, the majority felt that, given the risk profile in the town and evidence of fires in the recent and more distant past, the benefits of the rapid response vehicle did not outweigh the benefits of the current provision. “The financial saving associated with the proposal was the lowest of all the proposals and the cost benefit analysis of the proposal, informed by the feedback, was considered to be marginal.”
County councillors in Sudbury and Great Cornard had been criticised for not voicing their opinions on the proposed cuts until last week.
However Peter Beer, Suffolk county councillor for Great Cornard, said he had spoken with firefighters and members of the public, as well as voicing his concerns with Mr Hardingham and Mr Hicks.
“I am pleased at the end of the day we got what the people of Sudbury and the surrounding area want,” he said.
“We have listened to what the firemen and women and the public have said and have managed to convince the council to accept it.
“Although I am not totally against the RRV, I thought it was not the time for it in Sudbury.”
Despite Sudbury’s engine being saved, other stations in the county will see cuts.
Bury St Edmunds will lose its third appliance, but staffing cuts will see 15 on-call firefighters retained, instead of the initial 13 suggested.
Similarly Lowestoft South will lose an appliance and on-call firefighters will be reduced to 15.
Ipswich’s Princes Street station will lose its second full-time fire engine, with a loss of 16 full-time positions.
However, plans to scrap an on-call engine have been removed.
Ipswich East station will lose an on-call engine, with a reduction to 15 on-call firefighters at the station.
Wrentham station will no longer close, with its engine instead replaced with an RRV and staffing reduced from 11 to eight on-call firefighters.
Roy Humphreys, of the FBU in Suffolk, said: “Firefighters will be disappointed that the proposals submitted to the council continue to include the axing of firefighter jobs and the removal of fire engines from across Suffolk. We already have one of the best value for money fire services in the country, which means any further cuts will have a disproportionate impact on our ability to keep those who live, work and travel within the county safe.
“The 20,000 people who took part in a public consultation, and who overwhelmingly rejected these plans, have been ignored.
“We are particularly concerned about the provision of the on-call ‘retained’ firefighter service which is struggling to operate in spite of being regularly supported by a whole-time fire engine, which is one of those facing the axe.
“With annual fire deaths on the increase nationally, the fire and rescue service needs investment to ensure it has the correct amount of resources in place to protect the public and provide sufficient fire engines and firefighters to ensure the public are safe.”