Wiltshire Fire Service plans merger with Dorset to cut costs

WILTSHIRE Fire and Rescue Service is facing one of the biggest shake-ups in its history in a bid to cut costs.

Plans were announced yesterday to merge the force with Dorset Fire Service in order to plug a £4m gap in funding over the next four years.

Fire chiefs have not ruled out making firefighters redundant or closing stations but hope to be able to find the savings elsewhere.

They say if the costs are not met then the force faces disaster, with almost half of the full-time firefighters needing to be made redundant and many fire stations having to close.

Chief Fire Officer Simon Routh-Jones said: “In the past 12 months the financial situation has got considerably worse. With the savings we need to make it is not possible for us to stand alone.

“Of course at this stage I cannot rule out cuts to frontline services but this merger is an attempt to keep them to an absolute minimum.”

Since 2010, Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service has seen a reduction of 12 per cent of its government grant, which is due to fall by a further 17 per cent by 2017. It is expected to have dropped by a total of 50 per cent by 2019. In total this will amount to an overall drop of 20 per cent in the budget.

“The bulk of the savings will come through top-level management reductions, a streamlining of services, such as fire investigation, and procurement savings,” said Mr Routh-Jones.

“The exact make-up of the new force is not yet known but in an ideal world the public will not notice the difference.

“There could well be only one Chief Fire Officer so it is a bit like turkeys voting for Christmas but I would rather leave as a captain of a ship going somewhere rather than one sinking.

“I look at this as an opportunity to improve the overall service. It will make us the fourth largest force in the country which will give us far more power to save when it comes to purchasing power, such as fire engines.”

The plans were put before the relevant fire authorities earlier this month for approval. Between now and September a business case will be put together with more detail, with the initial plan to implement it by 2015.

Several options have been discussed at a national level to streamline fire services, including merging with the police.

However, these have been discounted in favour of linking with Dorset because they are so similar. A plan to have a joint control centre is already scheduled to take place next year.

Graham Payne, chairman of Wiltshire and Swindon Fire Authority, said: “I am not a fan of regionalisation but we are being forced into making changes as we have suffered severe cutbacks to our finances. If we were allowed to put council tax up in Wiltshire by £40 a year we would not have to be going down this road but we are capped at two per cent.

“We are a very good fit with Dorset as we are incredibly similar as counties. If the plan goes ahead for them to move their control centre to Potterne, Wiltshire would have much less of an upheaval than them.”

The Fire Brigade Union has said while it is nervous about what the news could mean for firefighters in the long term, the change is needed in the current financial climate.

Brent Thorley, the union’s South West secretary, said: “We have seen it happen before with the Devon and Somerset merger but that was handled badly so we know what the worse side is like.

“But I think this is being done for the right reasons as the cuts which have been imposed mean it is not tenable to carry on as a single force. I am sure when the details are being discussed they will consult with us so any conflict can be avoided.”

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