A POSSIBLE merger of South and West Yorkshire fire brigades is under consideration in response to government spending cuts and pressure for greater collaboration among emergency services.
The Yorkshire Post has learnt the option was discussed at a recent private meeting of South Yorkshire Fire Authority (SYFA) and is being raised as a possibility with council leaders in Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster.
“We are having to look at everything, looking at all the options in front of us. We may even have to look at going in with the police though I honestly think that’s a step too far.”Jim Andrews, South Yorkshire Fire Authority chairman
Political support would be a pre-condition of the idea being taken further but there is acknowledgement that government policy means that some form of amalgamation with another emergency service or services is increasingly likely.
It is understood initial talks have also taken place at senior level between the two services and respective fire authorities.
However, West Yorkshire Fire Authority (WYFA) said it will not consider any merger options until a decision is made on plans for a regional ‘powerhouse’. Currently the fire service is part of the proposal for devolved powers to the West Yorkshire region.
WYFA chairman Judith Hughes said: “Until we know what’s happening with devolution there’s nothing on the table.”
The option of a South and West Yorkshire merger appears to have sprung from government proposals for police and crime commissioners to take on responsibility for fire services. Those proposals have met with a very mixed response, including concerns funding would end up focused on policing.
A merger of the two brigades is seen as a potentially more palatable outcome but SYFA chairman Jim Andrews stressed no formal policy had been adopted and consideration was at an early stage.
He said: “We are having to look at everything, looking at all the options in front of us. We may even have to look at going in with the police though I honestly think that’s a step too far.”
Further pressure for merged services is expected to come from the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review, which is due to be announced by chancellor George Osborne on November 25. The blueprint for future public spending will deliver more significant cuts which are likely to sharpen the focus on potential savings that may come from amalgamating services.
Coun Andrews, who is also deputy leader of Barnsley Council, said if services were to merge his preferred option was a Yorkshire-wide fire service covering the same area as Yorkshire Ambulance Service (YAS) currently does.
But he acknowledged the logistics of drawing together a large number of local authorities with different council tax arrangements presented a significant obstacle whereas South and West Yorkshire are both metropolitan council areas which would be easier to align.
He said: “What makes more sense to me is a regional fire service based on YAS. It’s just that in my view that’s a long term thing because of the financial situation, the need to unpick the finances, get equilibrium of council tax bills.
Coun Andrews added: “Feedback will be sought from the council leaders. If their views are it’s a non-starter, it’s a non-starter.”
Ian Murray, regional official of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), said the union had been made aware the option of a South and West Yorkshire merger was under consideration and added that although the FBU did not have a specific policy on brigade mergers any changes had to protect services.
He said: “We would exercise caution and wouldn’t support any merger if it was just being used as a vehicle for cuts to frontline services we provide to communities.”
Mr Murray pointed to the 2013 merger of eight brigades to a single service in Scotland and said that had resulted in the loss of firefighters’ jobs.
A spokesman for Sheffield Council leader Julie Dore said she had been made aware the option of a merger was under consideration by SYFA but no view would be taken until proposals were developed.
South and West Yorkshire recently collaborated to acquire a multi-million pound joint control room system. Although both brigades currently retain their own control rooms, each can call on the other as a fallback if necessary.