Death by a thousand cuts?
Sailesh Mehta discusses the implications of further cuts to the fire brigade and how they affect the regulator's ability to regulate
On Wednesday 28 June 2017, the vote on the Queen’s Speech faced an unsuccessful amendment which sought greater finances for the fire brigade. During the debate, the opposition explicitly linked government cuts to the Grenfell Tower disaster.
In a letter to the Times newspaper on 27 June 2017, David Sibert, a national fire safety adviser to the Fire Brigades Union, suggested that the Grenfell Tower public inquiry should ask how developers routinely flouted fire safety regulations and why building control and the fire service were unable to identify and correct these failures. It is clear that the effect of cuts and austerity on fire safety will be on the agenda for years to come.
There are three strands to the work of all fire brigades:
• Prevention (home fire safety, research, advisory visits);
• Protection (business fire safety regulation); and
• Intervention (responding to emergency calls, putting out fires, dealing with other emergencies including road traffic collisions, chemical incidents, flooding, and other rescues).
Significant cuts have been made to the fire brigades’ budgets in almost every part of the country. They have been wide and deep, reducing the number of firefighters, support staff, fire stations, and appliances – all of which reduce response times in circumstances when every second counts. Each of the three strands of fire safety have been affected as a result. It is likely that all fire brigades will have tried to protect frontline fire-fighting services, and therefore the prevention and protection part of the service will have suffered the deepest cuts. These are the parts of the fire service that can prevent a future Grenfell.
The Home Office’s ‘Fire Operational Statistics Bulletin’ of December 2016 confirms that the number of home fire risk checks, which have long been credited for reducing fire deaths and casualties, has dropped by a quarter in five years, and that fire brigades are spending less time on public safety campaigns and initiatives.
In Hereford, 41 per cent of operational frontline firefighters have gone since 2012, with further cuts planned. In North Yorkshire, emergency calls are sometimes redirected to Cornwall. High-rise rescue capability has been greatly reduced in Scarborough and Avon; response times have increased to worrying levels in areas where fire stations have closed.
In February 2017, central government cut the grant to fire authorities by a further 20 per cent over four years. About 10,000 firefighter jobs have been lost across the UK during the last seven years – around one-fifth of the workforce.
There have been cuts to fire officers’ training, and the UK is no longer a world leader in fire research. There are no firm statistics available, but it is commonly believed in the industry that roughly two out of three fire safety officers’ jobs have gone. It is these officers who check if high-rise blocks are safe. Fire safety officers respond to local authority building regulation applications. The number of fire safety prosecutions has dropped over the last ten years, partly reflecting the lack of resources available.
Many of these cuts have been made under the guise of ‘light touch regulation’ or ‘cutting red tape’ – a philosophy articulated by the Blair government as well as subsequent Conservative governments, particularly during the Brexit campaign. The difficulty has been in knowing when pointless red tape ends and vital safety measures begin.
Cuts of the size and depth that have been made over the last ten years are bound to take their toll. Some have been absorbed through greater efficiencies, but many clearly have not. If the trend continues, then the effects are likely to become more pronounced. To be an effective regulator, the fire service needs the personnel, the equipment, and the training. This costs money, and if it is not found, the service will deteriorate and this will be reflected in greater loss of life.
The tide is turning on the public’s perception of austerity. Grenfell may be partly responsible for the growing sentiment, particularly in the young, that cuts to red tape and vital public services have gone too far. Jeremy Corbyn is onto this mood. Theresa May has already signalled a willingness to look afresh at the problem. If politics does not get in the way, a modicum of good may yet come out of a terrible tragedy.
Sailesh Mehta is a barrister and head of the fire law group at Red Lion Chambers